5 March 2012
Articles | Interviews

Interview: Andrew Bird

Ten albums in and the violinist is still preying for a way to communicate his swan song

Words Cian Traynor
Photography Mickey Gibbons

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In a boat perched above Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, Andrew Bird is plucking and smacking and strumming his distorted violin, coaxing out symphonic suites of obtuse pop. He’s swaying with a mixture of abandon and self-consciousness, poking a shoeless foot at a pedal station while a crescendo envelops the cabin, a custom-built horn spinning over his shoulder, a glockenspiel sitting before him.

But there is a disconnect: those watching a live stream of the performance, part of year-long art project A Room for London, are a step removed. There is no atmosphere, no exchange. It’s the antithesis of what Andrew Bird has spent the last 10 years building towards.

Rewind to a day earlier: Bird’s tall frame is slumped inside an elevator taking him up to the seventh floor of the Park Plaza Westminster. The 38-year-old violinist from Chicago seems deathly ill, eyes sagging as he recalls cringe-inducing memories of performing through sickness. He’s solemn, soft spoken and wrapped in enough scarves and cardigans to resemble a Dr Seuss character as he slinks into his stuffy hotel room, where the curtains are drawn at noon.

But as Bird collapses into a chair, the dim light of a lampshade concealing his clammy pallor, talk of using music to connect with others perks him up.

“That’s what started this whole thing,” he says. “The need for music to be not just this solitary discipline but something that makes you communicate with other people.”

Turn back to 2009: Bird has just punctuated a critically acclaimed run of albums with Noble Beast, his most popular release yet. For a collection of cerebral pop songs heaving with strings and accompanied by a bonus disc of freeform instrumental jams, Noble Beast is an unexpected success: reaching number 12 in the US charts and netting TV appearances on Letterman and Leno. But for a man who prioritises artistic communication, the six years of momentum leading to this moment have proved testing: battling frequent illness, playing 200 shows a year, scrapping 2005’s Mysterious Production Of Eggs twice before nailing it and, finally, emerging from a difficult breakup.

“I went into this big phase of playing solo and developing this whole self-sufficient, self-contained thing and just toured like crazy. I could pick up and go anywhere, indulging that solitary impulse for years.” He sighs, pulling on the string dangling from his tea. “It became this weird ritual where the audience were my band; I needed them for support. The solo shows are still, I have to say, a bit more gratifying. But you feel like a monk. You’re going for days without laughing or speaking sometimes. It’s a devotional kind of experience.”

‘Anonanimal’, Live at The Guthrie Theater, 2009

Bird is a restless figure, his brain percolating four or five song ideas at a time, driven by an impulse to see where they can be taken. He lives for serendipity, cultivating one-off moments by using a looping pedal to build up performances until they verge on collapse and he has to pull himself out of a tailspin. Since Bird sees himself somewhere on the spectrum between free jazz and classically written composition, learning how to feel his way through this process was crucial in developing his sound: a warbling whistle, captivating melodies, intertwining concerto arrangements and oblique lyrics packed with loquacious terminology — all shaped and balanced with code-breaking precision.

“The attraction of trying to make every performance different is knowing that if you try to piece it all together by physical memory tomorrow, it won’t be there,” he says. “Some people might find that frustrating but it’s so encouraging to know there are some things we can’t quantify or grasp. You just have to be patient for them to pop up. But once you get into that lucid state of mind, things start to flow.”

By allowing his imagination to bubble to the surface of his music, Bird’s hyper-tense flow of introspection has become increasingly popular in an age of neuroses. This isn’t intentional.

“People say my work has an intellectual or literary bent but it doesn’t, really. It’s just following curiosities. That’s why I tend to be drawn to words I don’t know the meaning of — it sparks my imagination.” He taps the armrest of his chair for emphasis, keeping time with the meter of this thoughts.

“But it is odd when you’re narrowing in on an idea and you start seeing it everywhere, like on a book spine in a library. I’m not one for fate but these little things can seem beyond serendipitous, making you think, ‘This has meaning now’. That’s when you know you just have to trust what’s coming together and follow it through.”

Step back even further to 2003, when Bird recorded Weather Systems, his fourth album and a turning point in his career. It followed a move to a farm in Northwest Illinois, where he built a barn-based studio and added guitar to his inventory. If any track captures the impact of this transition, it’s instrumental masterpiece ‘Ethiobirds’ (from live compilation Fingerlings 3), conjured out of the ether one night in Bird’s silo with just the sound of crickets for company.

Weather Systems was the real switch from student to someone who’s being consumed with music and working off their accumulated experiences instead of trying to nail a particular style. That meant stripping it all away. A song like ‘Lull’ was seeing if I could tie my hand behind my back a little bit, seeing if I could still make something compelling with as little as possible, like building off two notes.” He breaks into a whistle to demonstrate. “Things opened up when I moved out there. The songs weren’t so dense anymore and I started rethinking the way I made music.”

This wasn’t the first crossroads Bird faced: in 2002, he decided to continue with a show in his hometown of Chicago after his band, Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, pulled out. It was the first time he incorporated the looping and whistling into a performance and it paid off: the crowd were enthralled. Excited by the potential of this new approach, Bird broke up the band even though their third and final album together, 2001’s The Swimming Hour, marked a breakthrough excursion into pop.

“It was around that time I saw audiences triple within a year. That was strange, because I’d plateaud for a good four or five years before that. Suddenly I’d come back to the venue after getting a coffee and see a line going around the block, thinking, ‘Shit, who’s playing tonight?’ I thought that was the competition and I was screwed; no one was going to come. That’s when I knew something was happening, but the velocity kept increasing from one record to the next.”

Initially, the Bowl of Fire albums capitalised on a period of newfound freedom for Bird. He’d spent the preceding years bouncing between a punk ska band, indie group Pinetop Seven, bluesman Lil’ Ed Williams and retro swing outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers before sculpting the Bowl of Fire from hot jazz, bluegrass and gypsy folk influences.

The inspiration was disparate: he’d been gorging on all the sounds he overlooked growing up, teaching music at Chicago’s non-profit Old Town School of Folk Music, travelling around Ireland to sit in on nightly trad sessions, and performing jigs and reels for Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts queuing into Wisconsin’s Renaissance Fair. He even found time to self-release his debut, 1996’s Music Of Hair – an austere and uncertain rehearsal for what was to come.

“It was an awakening,” he says of that time. “When I hear the old albums now, it surprises me how restless and energetic they are. There are a lot of ideas packed in there: so many segues and intros and outros and bridges and diversions from the song. The performances sound like, well, you’re 23 and can’t contain the amount of energy you have. Technically, I’m like, ‘Wow, how the hell did I do that?’”

Bird didn’t get on with his teachers while studying violin performance at Chicago’s Northwestern University during the mid-nineties, a stage in his life where he felt increasingly stifled by the classical world. As a kid, a bookish Bird poured his time into youth orchestras and violin concertos, caught up in the romantic composers that, he says, provided a fitting soundtrack to the ups and downs of a teenager’s life. He had been learning violin by ear since the age of four, practising until convinced his ideal medium of expression rested somewhere between the instrument and his whistling.

“I was pretty shy, socially awkward, really intense and serious,” he says. “But ever since I was little I would chew my food to music. I’d make shapes with my mouth at every waking moment until whistling became this little valve for things to escape out of. It’s like there’s this radio [inside me] constantly playing but only the [melodies] that get under my skin are summoned.”

Over half a million album sales later and Bird is still trying to realise the qualities he first sought from music. His 10th studio album, Break It Yourself, is a work of elegiac beauty recorded as a quartet in a high-ceilinged barn with as few overdubs as possible.

“I built up the Bowl of Fire because I was searching for pure communication with other musicians, then dismantled it because maybe I was repressing a whole other part of my musicality,” he says. “Now I’m bringing it all together, returning to music being more of a social experience, something less scripted and produced.”

Bird became a husband and father halfway through its writing and, looking back, he’s realised that at some point during the new songs a switch is flipped: diverting him from “a dark, solitary path” to something fresher and unpredictable — a dynamic that mirrors his career.

“It’s been a pretty slow build for me. I certainly haven’t been playing it safe, but there haven’t been any huge leaps where I lost touch with how I got here either. To this day I’m superstitious about how I come into a venue; I have to go out in the audience before a show and check the acoustics, make sure I don’t forget how to connect with the whole experience… Sometimes I think the only thing you can count on to tie all this together are the kinds of things that occur to me, the kind of person I am. Maybe sometimes that’s enough to make it work.”

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