Interview: Andrew Bird
Multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird works in layers, stacking sounds and rhythms, building lush, heavily-orchestrated pop songs. On Bird’s fourth full-length release, Armchair Apocrypha, his classical background (Bird was trained as a violinist) matches wits with his curious eye, and the resulting tracks are rich and delightful, as concerned with melody as they are with mitosis.
eMusic: Your tour went green. Can you talk a little bit about your decision to use biodiesel, eat organic food, and recycle?
Andrew Bird: I’ve been touring for ten years, but I’ve never been able to afford a tour bus [before now]. But I’ve been on other tours, where I was opening for someone, and I’ve seen what was lying ahead for me. I just didn’t want to go down the prescribed path of fifty water bottles strewn about, half-drunk, on a gas-guzzling tour bus. Touring is a disposable, temporary, fairly wasteful enterprise. So we hooked up with this [organization] called Reverb. They helped plan our routing so we can hit biodiesel stops. And we have a really great tour manager who helps with scheduling. And we sell refrigerator magnets [for emissions awareness]. Part of it is about us doing our little part to make a difference, but it’s also more of an awareness thing, just to get people talking about it.
eMusic: This is your first record with Fat Possum. How did you decide to work with them? Have you been down to Oxford, MS?
AB: I’ve spent some time down there, yeah — both on tour and visiting friends. I’ve listened to gospel and blues music for years. People say “Oh, you’re from Chicago, the blues are pretty vital there.” And I’m like, no, it’s not vital. The only place to hear really old stuff is down south. And they’re this label that’s taken that and found a way to present it. I’ve been aware of them for years. I was a bit surprised that they were interested at first, because I don’t exactly make that kind of music. But it does make some sense. They sent me their whole catalogue — I would have been seeking that stuff out, maybe 90% of the catalogue. They were just looking to expand their [reach] beyond that specific style of music. But it really came down to them offering us the best deal, and outbidding the bigger labels that were interested.
eMusic: I read that you recorded most of Armchair Apocrypha live, using the same system of loops you use onstage. Did you try it other ways first, or did you set out wanting to capture something specific about your live sound?
AB: Half the time when you try to do that — make a record live — you’re disappointed. But when you do the kind of stuff that we do live, with the looping, you have a choice. You can either multi-track it in a studio and have control over every layer, which is tempting, or you can decide to give up a little of the hi-fi control. The first song we recorded was “Plasticities” and we did it to tape, and we did it live, and [Martin Dosh's] drum track is evolving throughout the song, while other things are layering.
eMusic: Because of the complex onstage set up, have you ever had any catastrophic gear-related meltdowns or snafus?
AB: Yeah. Stuff doesn’t work all the time. I think the audience understands, at least partially, what we’re trying to pull off. At least I hope so. We take a certain amount of pride in the fact that yes, this could fall apart. And at a live show, you still get to do do-overs. But I’m always sensing the patience of the audience. The pressure builds if I don’t get the loop right the first time and start again. It becomes a situation.
eMusic: Can you talk a little bit about the barn you built near your home in Illinois? Was anything on the new album recorded there?
AB: Yeah, the environmental sounds, the bird sounds, at the end of the record. I’ve tried to make records there, but it’s such a peaceful place, I hate to bring in that kind of self-doubt. The things I have done out there — I’ll open all the windows and hook my violin up to five or six amps, put microphones inside and outside. Every time I hear those recordings I relax.
eMusic: Is the physical space in which you’re writing and recording important to you?
AB: It can be. Although we made most of this record in a basement in Minneapolis in February. Not the most romantic scenario you can imagine. But in some ways, you’d rather be in a dark, cavernous place, because you get more focused [on recording].
eMusic: Lyrically, you seem to take inspiration from various facets of 21st-century life — science and politics, in particular. How does one manage to bring cell mitosis into pop music?
AB: I’ve always been fascinated by wild theories. The crackpot, big, blanket theories of science. Those are just the things that pique my imagination, not the academic details. I read a lot of pop science, I keep gravitating towards it. It just helps me understand why people behave in groups — you know, the observation of the playground and the petri dish. But I’m more of an instrumentalist that sings. The melodies — I never worry about writers’block as far as melodies go, they’re always gonna come. The words are a little more elusive. You just have to cultivate a state of mind.
eMusic: You have been trained in the Suzuki method of violin, which is both a celebrated and controversial way to learn an instrument. Do you ever find yourself defending the method to detractors who believe it leads to stiff, imitative performance?
AB: It’s totally the opposite as far as I’m concerned. When I was younger, that argument was being made, that the Suzuki method — not so much that it churns out cookie-cutter musicians, but that it doesn’t train them properly for the harsh, competitive world of classical music. Basically, the problem was that it doesn’t emphasize note-reading. But the thing is, it forms a connection between the ear and what you’re playing, without any middleman. But it was rough when I came out of Suzuki and went into the traditional classical world.
eMusic: Your mother is also an artist, a printmaker. Have you ever collaborated?
AB: A couple years ago we did “The Red Shoe.” We took the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and I re-wrote it in ballad form and we changed the story a little bit, and she did a print for every page, and I did an instrumental piece. It’s twelve minutes of music and then a lot of artwork.
eMusic: Are there any artists or bands making music now that excite you?