Musical polymath Andrew Bird is the quintessential word-of-mouth artist. His music, which draws elements from pop, classical, jazz, and folk traditions, defies easy genre categorization, and his modest Midwestern persona is amiable, but not striking. A "next big thing" he is not. Yet his name has been quietly buzzing in taste-making music circles for years, with each new release quietly building on the sleeper success of the last. Bird reached a new peak in 2007 with Armchair Apocrypha, a name-making album that landed him on many year-end best-of lists and attracted more than 13,000 fans to a homecoming show at Chicago's Millennium Park in fall 2008. Immediately following Armchair's rigorous tour, which saw Bird playing 150 to 200 shows a year, he returned to the studio to write and record the new Noble Beast. The momentum seems to be working: The new album is his most accessible yet, a collection of straightforward (relatively speaking), melodic tunes—bolstered, as always, by Bird's signature whistling and violin flourishes—that foreshadows yet another quiet breakthrough. The A.V. Club spoke with Bird as he prepared to unleash Beast.
The A.V. Club: Noble Beast is your second time recording an album with drummer Martin Dosh and guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker. Obviously something about that dynamic is working for you.
Andrew Bird: Yeah. We did it quite differently on [Armchair Apocrypha]. Most records, you build from the drums and bass up. This one, we started with the vocals in Nashville and recorded them live with just the guitars and tried to make that complete and lovely-sounding without any adornment at all. I really wanted to get something with the vocal that I've never gotten before this one. Jeremy was really more key on this one.
AVC: He was mostly just on the tour last time, right?
AB: Yeah. He played on "Scythian Empires." I saw him play in a band in Minneapolis one night. He was playing this sort of finger-style guitar on a Telecaster, and it was just beautiful. And I said, "I want that guy in my band." So I had him come play like that on "Scythian," and I've been playing with him ever since.
AVC: So you started with the vocals, and then what happened after?
AB: I had this plan of going off and renting a cabin in the Rockies. This kind of romantic thing. Finally making a record without killing myself to make it. Maybe getting someone to cook and just lock down and make a record with the band, because I'd never really done it like that. Because every time I make a record, it's kind of like scarification or something. You work 15 hours until you're stupid. You're just kind of all jittery.
AVC: Do you write while you're touring as well?
AB: I finished touring the last record in February, and I started recording this one in March. So I never really left the bubble, if you will, which is I think a good thing. I was just very focused. Maybe I should have taken a break or something, and not done such a long push, you know? But I was ready to go. I was excited to make a record. I had this idea of making it more leisurely—a château in southern France with good food and long lunch breaks—but it just doesn't work that way. It's like you don't know you're making a record unless you're half-killing yourself. Then Wilco offered their space right around that time, and I was like, "Great. Can't turn that down. Let's get right to work." So Jeremy came down and we made some demos. Just kind of rough sketches of the songs. And we sent them to Dosh in Minneapolis, and he, you know, puts his kids to bed and then stays up all night making loops. So he made a loop for every demo with, like, kids' toys and found sounds. That's where he's most creative, not sitting at a drum set in a studio. Then we took those percussion tracks and went to Nashville. I played an old Martin guitar. Jeremy played a Hummingbird. We just tried to get really great vocal pieces.
So then we just have this vocal and guitar, and we took that back to the Wilco loft, brought Martin down to play drums. It's kind of unusual to add drums. You usually add vocals last, but we were just trying to make the song sound really beautiful without any of that stuff. And then try not to screw it up.
AVC: Do you find that after touring as a three-piece last year, you're moving toward more of a band mentality?
AB: With this record, I was kind of picking up a little bit where [2003's] Weather Systems left off, sonically, texturally, but it is more of a band effort, I guess. But I'm still not ready, haven't been ready, to let go of the solo thing. I still play solo shows. And some of those shows are still some of the best, most gratifying shows. I mean, I love, love, love my band, and that's still a new thing. We've only scratched the surface of what we can do. I'm pretty sure the next thing will be a full-on band effort, but this one, I was still pretty in control of stuff from beginning to end.
But this whole record is going to be full four-piece band. I haven't had that many people onstage for a while, and I'm looking forward to that. They're all such creative musicians in their own right. They're all complete individuals. They're not just a pick-up band. They all have their own thing going on. Like, Mike Louis, the bass player, is an amazing tenor sax player [with jazz trio Happy Apple]. One of the best on the planet. But he's just playing electric bass for me, and totally thrilled to be there. These guys make me kind of tear up when I think about them, because they get together and rehearse my songs without me even asking. It's unheard of from a band.
AVC: Kind of what you would dream of to have in an actual band.
AB: Yeah. I mean, people who are thinking about your music almost as much as you are, that almost never happens.
AVC: When you write an album, are you more thinking of adapting songs that you've already done onstage, or are you composing songs in a studio, and then figuring it out live?
AB: Usually, we've played them live before we record them, but then that's a double-edged sword. You can build up expectations for a song before you record it, and then it's like nothing's good enough in the studio.
AVC: Is there something on Noble Beast that you did a lot live?
AB: "Anonanimal." In fact, the basic tracks are from the live performance, and then we just replaced things and built on top of it. The bones of it are really great, so we know all we can do is screw it up or make it better. But there's other songs, like "Effigy," I just played once in front of an audience recently, and it came together in the studio. "Tenuousness," we'd done as a band for a while. "Master Swarm," we've been doing for a while. There's one that has no live drums on the recording, though. Martin and I made a little clapping percussion track, and that's the whole thing. It was never asking for a drum set. Considering how little bombastic percussion is on this record, it's surprisingly light and upbeat.
AVC: It is a more upbeat record.
AB: I didn't think it was, but people have been saying that.
AVC: You saw a big profile jump after Armchair: You sold a lot more records, and you're playing bigger venues. Do you think any of that influenced the new one? Were you composing with a bigger audience in mind?
AB: Not at all. When it was over, I was like, "Wow. This is as weird a record as I've ever made." I mean, I have some irrepressible pop impulses to write an appealing, concise song. And I also have some irrepressible kind of restlessness as well, and I need to keep myself interested. When I'm left to my own devices, there's a struggle. Like a song like "Fitz And The Dizzy Spells," because you know it wants to be this pop song, but it has so many digressions in it. You know, so many linear sections. There's always that struggle between me wanting to keep it new and fresh and then be—I can never get with pop songs being so repetitive.
AVC: But you do have something a lot like a chorus in "Oh No."
AB: Mmhmm, and that happens a lot. That keeps coming back around.
AVC: Do you think you have a repressed impulse to write a straight-ahead pop song? Is that something you'd ever want to experiment with?
AB: I think I already do, yeah. It's not that it's repressed. I'm coming from a place that's more experimental and indulgent already, so for the last 10 years, it's been more like, "How can I defend my own sensibilities by writing a nugget of a little catchy pop song?" That's how I'm stretching myself, by writing something really simple.
AVC: In the blog you did for The New York Times about the process of recording Noble Beast, you talk about sometimes taking a song that seems to want to go in a certain direction, and forcing it a different way to see where you can take it.
AB: Sometimes I think I don't have much choice in the matter. It's just what happens, and I'm following my instincts the whole time. I just pay attention to what's in my head. That's my number-one rule. If something gets under my own skin, and keeps reoccurring, it starts to take on a certain weight and value, and I think, "I have to put this in the song. I have no choice but to mention Greek Cypriots in this song." It's a little internal challenge to myself. Like creating little imaginary rituals in yourself to help the song go from nonexisting to existing. I don't get particularly precious about things like this, though. Like the record company said, "We need a radio edit that delivers the hook"—I don't even know what they consider the hook in that song ["Oh No"]—"that delivers the hook sooner." So I'm like, "Okay. I see that." And they were all walking on eggshells, like is this going to be sacrilegious to me or something, to mess with this art I've created? And I'm like, "Great. I get to tinker with it, I get to mess with my song some more." It's not set in stone. I like to keep it rolling and changing, and so I was like, "Great, I get to remake my song." So I took that whistle solo and stuck it at the beginning, which is something I kind of wished I had done anyway. I don't like to be that precious about it.
AVC: Do you just have trouble settling on a final version of the song? You're known for having recorded The Mysterious Production Of Eggs three times.
AB: Not so much on this record. I almost got everything on the first try. But you just know. If you take a little time, let's say three weeks off, after recording a song, and you listen to it every other day, you're just going to know eventually. Once you get a little space, like, does it make you excited to hear your own song? And that's what you're hoping to do. Every time I hear "Oh No," I'm like, "Isn't it cool how that happened? Isn't it cool how Jeremy decided, 'I'm going to play this one fuzzy guitar note here'? And it just glues that section together. The way that snare is so kind of dry and tindery-sounding, and it makes everything just kind of pop and lift up, you know?" So every time I hear that song, I'm like, "Ah. Something cool happened." It wasn't what I was planning to happen, but nonetheless, there's a little tentative period after you record it when you're like, "Is this cool? I dunno. Am I making something I would want to listen to, let alone perform hundreds of times?"
AVC: You're also doing an instrumental album that's coming out at the same time as Noble Beast. Is that considered a companion, or is it a totally separate thing?
AB: Yeah, it'll be like, X number of limited-edition, quite a few actually, where it's got different artwork, it's got Diana Sudyka's illustrations, an illustration for every song, kind of like Mysterious Production Of Eggs. You've got the song record, which is Noble Beast, and you've got Useless Creatures, which is the instrumental record. It's just something I've wanted to do for years. That part of me does get depressed a little bit, just the playing for the sheer joy of playing, you know?
AVC: Is that tied to your jazz background?
AB: Well, mostly classical is where I came from. I definitely have to give myself permission, like on "Master Swarm," to rip a lead on that. Just play a violin solo that's—it's a bit showoff-y, but it's fun, so who cares? The instrumental record is a bit subtler. It's the kind of stuff on sound check, when I first pick up my violin and start to play, the kind of melodies that just pour out of me. Some of them sound very classical. Some of them sound experimental, polyrhythmic loops that I make. The centerpiece is like a 10-and-a-half-minute tape-manipulation piece where I—a couple of years ago, I took a tape machine out to my barn, hooked my violin up to like six different amplifiers, opened all the windows and put microphones outside, and recorded basically an ambient loop. I make these loops that are kind of like a pentatonic scale, that kind of keep revolving and turn into this static, time-slowing-down, ambient thing. I do it a lot. Something like at the end of "Banking On A Myth." It kind of leaves you at the end of a song, where everything cuts off and you hear this blob of sound hanging over, and it makes you want to stare at the wall for a couple minutes. So I made basically a whole new instrument out of these loops, like I made one for every note in the scale. Then I took that to a studio in Los Angles just recently, and lined it up on a 24-track tape machine, and then ran it back through a board and sort of played the console like a keyboard, fanning between loops, and then putting my hand on the tape machine to make the tape slow down and speed up. It's a bit like Brian Eno, but it's with my own stuff. But I really like the sound of analog things where clearly there's something being touched. You can sense that something is handmade. So much with digital, there's a disconnect.
AVC: So you're the one doing the manipulating, not a machine?
AB: Yeah. I mean, with digital it just becomes simply information, not the sum of its parts. Anyway, I'm digressing, but this is just kind of this 10-and-a-half-minute, ambient—you hear cicadas and birds and the wind outside and crickets as I'm swelling the piece. I could never do that on a pop record. I could, but why would I want to be agitating?
AVC: So do you think you'll be experimenting with any of that stuff live then, since it's so agitating?
AB: Not agitating, but it could lead to seasickness. Yeah, I'm booking a few shows. In New York, I'm playing in a church, solo, doing instrumental stuff. There's talk of doing more, like, installation-type things with some of the specimen horns I've played through. Just filling a room in a museum with these horn-speaker sculptures and then making loops that run all day, and you walk around the room and sort of mix the sound by where you stand. That's all way in the future, but that kind of stuff is a different way of thinking about performing.
AVC: Earlier, you alluded lyrics maybe taking a bit more work, or you tend to concentrate on it more, whereas melodies are more instinctual.
AB: Yeah. The melodies come out so strong that I'm like, "Oh, crap." It's really better if they could both be kind of able to compromise, but the melodies, even more recently, they come out very fully cast and formed. So you've got one thing that's fixed and another thing that sort of has to accommodate the melody. Like "Natural Disasters," that melody came out fully formed, and I thought it would just have to be an instrumental, because the only thing I could think of to sing was "I'm the one who sank the Lusitania," but it fit perfectly in the shape of the melody. And that just popped into my head. And I'm like, "Oh, crap, how do I write another—" You know, I still have 90 percent of the song to write. I start with something like that. So I had to scrap that and start over, and that song took me a good two or three years to finish out.
AVC: So it sounds like you're more concerned with the way words sound than what they mean.
AB: Yeah, but there's a reason certain words occur to you. And you spend a lot of time trying to pull meaning out of these things. It's not completely random. Thus, there is a reason I couldn't work with "I'm the one who sank the Lusitania." That's evidence that it's not completely arbitrary. There are some songs that are quite pointed from beginning to end, you know.
In the case of that, though, I do feel under a lot of pressure. Like, "Oh this is such a lovely, sweet, simple melody. How can I write something that's going to do justice to the melody?" Melodies are just honest. They can only be what they are. Words have the capacity for deception. They're all full of subtext, and some of them are cliché and overused and vernacular. They're tricky. All I can say is, words are tricky.
AVC: You've said that some of your songs are very pointed, but it seems that you shy away from making any direct statements or telling a story in most of your songs. Do you have a specific interpretation in mind when you write things, or are you just inviting listeners to project their own ideas onto it?
AB: No, I'm just kind of like, "Check this out. Isn't this kind of strange that I see things these way?" They're open-ended, generally. And they're generally subject matter that isn't often addressed in songs, or even subject matter that isn't addressed in general.
AVC: Do you have an example?
AB: Some of my earlier songs are kind of more about mental illness. They don't come across that way. There's other songs that could either be taken as a conversation between two people, like "The Privateers," or "Why," from a much earlier record. Or "Glass Figurine." That's my version of a relationship song. There's a conversation throughout the song. Some songs are just like, "Okay." Like, "Dark Matter" raises some interesting questions. Other songs, like I said, these relationship songs, for lack of a better way to describe them, they're a conversation between two people. But they're vague enough that you could either interpret it as a geopolitical conflict or two people, you know? They can go from very microscopic to very macro. I like to keep things relatively vague, either to protect the innocent, or to just invite—my favorite songs are blueprints. My favorite literature to read is fairly dry history. I like the framework, and my imagination can do the rest. I don't like super-descriptive modern fiction. I like, "Here's what was happening in 1582 all over the planet." Then that gets my imagination going. And most of the songs that I appreciate are lyrically vague.
With the words, a lot of things start with questions. Some word kind of piques my interest, and I love the way it sounds, but I really don't know what it means. And I honestly don't care for a while. Then I start asking my friends, "What do you think this means?" And it leads to way more interesting conversations than what it actually ends up meaning in the dictionary. Like "apocryphal," for instance. Suddenly that word goes way beyond what most words are capable of. And the big plus is that it sounds great to sing. Like "Nomenclature," which means the naming of things or words, and that was a jackpot word, because it was what I was trying to say or a subject that I was interested in. It was a case-in-point-type song. I'm talking about how words are losing their weight and their meaning, and nomenclature is washing away. And the word itself has a really cool cadence. In that case, the word dictated the melody. Sometimes it happens that way, too.
AVC: History and the natural world are motifs you return to a lot. It's like you want to be a biologist in another life.
AB: Honestly, I didn't have the patience for biology or history in an academic sense, but I always liked the kind of big questions. The little sidebar in Discover magazine. Like, "Little known fact: Did you know…" Just kind of mind-blowing things. But I didn't have the patience for the research, or anything like that. I just like how it sets the imagination off. It's just an area that's very fertile for great words. Great metaphors, potentially. Really, with this record, it's going a little more toward natural history. Like, when you're feeling bereft in all other aspects of things, how can you argue with nature? It's like the last frontier of sorts.
AVC: You went on a couple of songwriting "field trips" to the Field Museum and Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago. Does that tie in at all?
AB: Well, that's because I was trying to finish "Natural Disaster" within a week of recording it. I'm never really under the gun like that. I thought, "Okay. Novelists do research. Actors do Method research as well. What's wrong with putting myself there and just seeing what occurs to me?" Usually I'm just waiting for shit to pop into my head, so I thought, "I'll be a little more proactive, see how it goes." So the Field Museum trip yielded a good line from the domestic chamber, the place where the beetles devour the carcasses of geese that flew into a skyscraper. They just haul them into the Field Museum and stick them in this aquarium tank full of beetles. There's this colony that's been in there for 40 years in this double-airlocked room, and they just throw a wolf into this tank and it picks it clean. Diana, who did the artwork, gave me the tour. What you see at the Field Museum is only like, 10 percent of the collection. It's birds of paradise and passenger pigeons and in all these drawers that pull out, these specimens come out and it's spectacular. And it worked out.
And I'm into lately being a little less precious about writing and being like, "Okay, what if I just locked myself in my room, pretend that there's someone outside with a gun that's saying, 'Don't come out until you write something.'" And I've had a few situations lately where I've had to write something really, really fast, for like a film thing or something. And I think, "Sure, I could do that." And I just stay up all night. I did that with "Imitosis." I had to re-write the chorus because of an issue with Sesame Street. The original chorus said, "We all live in a capital I," which is from that cartoon in Sesame Street. And the lawyers finally said, "Sorry, you can't do it." And I couldn't even do it under the radar, because they knew, and I was like, "Aw, crap. I've been working on this song for four years." And instead of getting depressed, I just stayed up all night, and I wrote the whole line about mitosis.
AVC: And you just stuck the I on as an homage?
AB: Yeah, as an homage to "Capital I." Just because you're under the gun like that doesn't mean you're going to write anything of less quality, necessarily.
AVC: Or that if you spend four years on something that it's going to be better.
AB: Exactly. I mean, "Palindromes" was written and recorded within four days. Whereas "Measuring Cups" took four years and seven or eight recordings. And then the trip to the Garfield Park Conservatory, I was in the one area and they had a lot of anthurium, and I thought, "That's a cool word." But "lacrimae," I just made that up. It just sounded good.
AVC: What do you think it means?
AB: I kinda use that one a lot. Like "lachrymose," "macramé," mixing the two together. I do that sometimes, take one word and cram it against another, like "nauseausalation." Nau-seus-a-lation. Or "tenuousness." It's very onomatopoeic, like a decaying rope bridge across a canyon: ten-u-ous-ness. So there's things that come across like this, and there's also a lot of work that goes into making it meaningful, you know?
AVC: So it's not just free-association.
AB: No, no. I mean, you try to get as far as you can with that. But the need to communicate does enter at some point.
AVC: When you were writing that blog for The New York Times, was it weird for you, being so analytical about your own process?
AB: No. This is what I do. I've been doing music for so long, I'm going to maybe have a few things to say about it at this point. And unless they prodded me to do it, I wouldn't. In the end, I was kinda glad I did, I was like, "Hey, I'm enjoying this." I am, in some sense, a writer. Even though I kinda downplay the word thing, I do enjoy writing sometimes. And I was concerned, yeah, that I would become too self-conscious as I was trying to write the record and record it. That was just me being a little bit lazy, too. It wasn't a big deal. You have to try a lot harder to demystify things than that.
AVC: You tour a lot, almost nonstop in the past four years. Do you like being on tour?
AB: I do. It's like a mix of the known and the unknown. Like, you know how to do your job, you know how everything works, but you're going off to a new place every day. You just don't know what's going to happen. I've been doing it for 13 years, so I've adapted.
AVC: The past two years since Armchair hit had to have been a little different, though.
AB: Yeah. When you do it this long, there's like this pressure you put on yourself. Like you know you've been in the trenches for so long—"Now they're finally coming, don't blow it." Then there's the question of what does not blowing it, or blowing it, mean? Is it really having a perfect show?
AVC: Is there such a thing?
AB: No. Well, hopefully not. The hope is that something unique happens at every show that sets it apart from the next night, so it just doesn't all blur together. You feel like you owe it to—people have come out of their homes into a dark room to experience this show. It's a really exceptional thing. Every night, I just don't want to forget how important it is, socially or culturally, to be part of that, to be the reason for that gathering. So I put a lot of pressure on myself, I never let my guard down, every show, 150 to 200 shows a year. Every show is not "make sure you play every note perfectly," it's "make sure you're making something beautiful happen every night."
AVC: You do a lot of looping and sampling onstage, which seems to be asking for technical difficulties.
AB: I kind of actually like to stage situations that make things more dangerous. I like that flush of embarrassment if something doesn't go right. It just kind of snaps me out of that automatic state of mind that can set in, that's just natural to set in for anyone doing the same thing night after night. We deliberately keep everything very perilous. And yeah, sometimes within that first 30 seconds of making that loop, my finger could get stuck and clip over the string, and there will be some little anomaly in the loop, and not only do I have to live with that for the rest of the song, but my whole band has to play to that, and it's gonna come around maybe 30 times again to remind you of how you fucked up.
AVC: Does it ever work out for the better?
AB: Well, in those initial stages of making the loop, you kind of have to nail it. And then you got to decide, make a call. I look at Martin like, "What do you think? Can we live with this, is this gonna work?" Then I'll be like, "Nope, everybody stop." And that's okay, because the reason people are coming to that show is that it's not an Auto-Tuned, perfect record done to a click track. People tend to applaud the fact that we're taking those kinds of risks. There's situations where we think to ourselves, "Man, we've got to dumb it down for these festivals. We've got 15 minutes to throw and go, and there's so many variables." And TV, like Letterman last year, was kind of a fiasco. I won't go into the details, but we had to do it over, which is almost unheard of, because the loops didn't work. We didn't all freeze in our tracks, we still played, and Dave seemed to like it a lot, but it wasn't what it was supposed to be. We had to wait until they recorded another show, and then come back afterward. There was some very tricky negotiation involved with that. Then we had one more shot to get it, and it was great. But the Dave that's there going "Yay, that was great," was from earlier that night, he wasn't there when we did the actual performance. I don't know if I should be saying all this stuff, given that we're going to be on Letterman again. I remember he was saying, "And for his network-television debut, Andrew Bird," and I still had my winter coat on because it was so cold. And I was like, "Oh crap," throw off the coat, go up and start the loop. It was one of these songs ["Plasticities"] where Martin starts the loop, even though I'm the one who starts playing, and my signal is going through his stuff, so it gets in through his drums and that allows my pizzicato loop to sync with his drums. So we couldn't have picked a more perilous song.
AVC: Do you ever get tired of always being tagged as "the guy who whistles," "the guy who plays the violin," "the guy who does loops," and so forth?
AB: It's pretty harmless. There's lots of worse things that could be attached to your name. Since I started doing the New York Times thing, sometimes they say on the ad at the theater, "Multi-instrumentalist, cultural commentator." I'm like, "No, that's a bad expectation to start to develop." I guess it's better than "blogger," which is such an ugly word. It's always been such a pain to describe to anyone what I'm doing, so it might as well be a matter-of-fact thing like "violinist," "whistler," "multi-instrumentalist." It's all pretty harmless. If they said, like, "swing impresario" or something like that, then I would have an issue. Or "indie rock" is another one that gets me. I just never felt like I had anything to do with indie rock. When you think indie rock, you think more about haircuts and fashion than about music. The other one that made me cringe recently was, some journalist was trying to coin a term and he said "whistle-rock" or something like that. "You know, like Peter Bjorn And John!" "Oh God, no, don't, you're going to ruin everything!"