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Whistle While You Work

Touring behind his 12th album, the multifarious Andrew Bird returns to Babeville

A broken heart is something everyone should experience at least once in a lifetime. At least that is what indie rock musician, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter Andrew Bird believes. This year Bird released his 12th studio album, Break It Yourself, and as the title suggests: If you can’t find someone to break your heart for you, go ahead and do it yourself.

(photo by Cameron Wittig)

This is the type of attitude that Bird has always stuck with in his writing and performing. He goes with his gut; he likes to do the unexpected. When it comes to performing on stage, Bird is like a painter with a palette of different colors and materials at his fingertips—oils, pastels, spray paint, watercolors—and as he sits at his canvas he grabs at each, whipping them at the blank slate as he sees fit. His violin, guitar, xylophone, and mouth are his media, and as a member of his audience you never know what you’re going to get next. Sometimes even he doesn’t know.

Bird returns to Buffalo on Monday, July 16, with special guest Patrick Watson at Babeville’s Asbury Hall.

AV: You have a little bit of a connection to Buffalo. When you began your career as a solo artist, you were signed to Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records, which is based here in Buffalo. How would you say your music has evolved since those earlier days on Righteous Babe?

Andrew Bird: I put out a bunch of records before that period but they were more of a band experience. Ani took notice when I kind of reinvented the way I was making music. Then I went through a long period of really getting deep into what was really going on inside of me, and that was kind of isolating. Those were those records like Weather Systems and The Mysterious Production of Eggs.

Now slowly each record is getting more and more back into music as a social experience. There is still that private element that I keep in the shows, like when I perform solo. I think I’ve been getting back into making music with people, though. This last record shows the most amount of trust I’ve put into other musicians in a long time.

AV: What sparked your reinvention?

AB: Part of it was moving out of Chicago and living on a farm for a couple of years. Just completely changing my lifestyle and my environment. It makes sense that what you see everyday is going to affect what you hear in your head.

I also wanted to eliminate the feeling that you get as a bandleader that you’re always hosting a party because that doesn’t always go so well. That can lead to repressing ideas. You’re deferring to other musicians and their influence, and their record collections come onto your record, and suddenly it’s like it’s not something that you would completely say is yours. I needed to change that. I had an unusual past, musically, and there are lots of layers, and I don’t want to neglect any of them. I wanted to exercise every part of my musicality and I had to put myself into a vacuum to find out how it all fit together.

AV: Break It Yourself was recorded a little bit differently than most would expect. You did a lot of the takes live with the whole band rather than recording instrument tracks one by one. Oh yeah, and you did it all in a barn. Why did you choose to do the record like that?

AB: That shouldn’t be that unusual, but more and more these days it is: Just four musicians in a room playing music together. That is an incredibly elusive way to do it. Everything about the recording process begs one to deconstruct what is natural and piece it back together. I got really tired of production. I can hear it on all of the records. I can hear choices being made. It just sounds like conceit, it sounds like choices instead of music.

All of us come from a jazz background, we can improvise, but we appreciate a well-written pop song. This record goes from incredibly straightforward, for me as a songwriter, to some of the wildest solos I’ve ever played. Take “Give It Away.” That song is very direct to me yet the soloing—the pizzicato solo—is the most out-there stuff I’ve allowed to be on a record. It’s got these extremes and this dynamic range that is kind of unprecedented.

AV: When I began listening to the new record I was really blown away by the first track. There is a moment toward the end of the track where there is a violin solo, and the violin hits this sustained high note that sounds almost like a synthesizer. I really liked the way that the sound of the violin transformed before my ears. Most of your music sounds very organic, though; can you explain the marriage between electronics and acoustics in your music?

AB: Everything you hear on that track is completely live. We’ve developed so much on stage, so many ways of manipulating the notes we’re playing in real time. There are no prerecorded samples. There are no synthesizers per se. What I was doing in that case is I’ve got two loops going. One is the pizzicato pattern that is the groove that the band is playing along with—when I do these pizzicato patterns each one is unique because I’m just feeling my way through it.

Then I have a whole other rig, which is what you were talking about, that note. I’m soloing and then I hit a note and I loop just that one note, then I pitch shift that note all over the place. The song is talking about bees, so I thought that kind of sounded like a buzzing bee. I spoke with this French journalist from an electronic magazine not too long ago and he wouldn’t take my word for it that we weren’t really an electronic band. He wouldn’t take my word for it that there was no production. All of these ideas are happening on the fly. My drummer Dosh is highly respected in the sort of underground electronic and hip hop circles, but he plays like a jazz musician. He’s improvising with himself and looping. You can see it happening.

Something about that process is different than what I think of as “electronic.” To me, Kraftwerk would be the other end of it, where everything is kind of on a grid and put in its place. On this record, there is production but it is all improvised and happening before tape.

AV: I recently watched a live video of one of your performances of the song “Plasticities” from a couple of months ago. When the performance begins you’re plucking a violin with your fingers, then you’re bowing it, then you start to sing, you pick up a guitar and strum that a little bit, then all of a sudden you’re playing a xylophone and whistling at the same time. You move so fluidly from one instrument to the next. How do you keep track of it all? Do you ever find yourself holding a drumstick when you should be holding a banjo or something?

AB: Sometimes I do cross the streams inadvertently. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing a live cooking show and I’m like the absent-minded cook, thinking, “Argh, I forgot to add that,” but it’s no big deal because who knows what is supposed to happen next? I don’t even know. I kind of embrace that attitude on stage and it works. I don’t get flustered really. I’ve got this good racket going where failure is part of the performance. Failure is something I look forward to because then I have to really be present.

AV: It is a challenge for you. Do you ever wish you had like four more people on stage with you or a whole orchestra? Or do you prefer to have control over all of these different instruments?

AB: You know, the more people on stage the more it is going to feel locked down. Then you’ve got arrangements and charts and every measure has to be accounted for. I don’t really enjoy that. There is something about the feel of the way I do pizzicato that if you gave it to an orchestra it would sound really, really square. So far that has been my attitude, but I wouldn’t mind hearing what a cello section or a double bass section would sound like playing an idea. That is something you can’t replicate with electronics.

AV: On Break It Yourself you have a song called “Eyeoneye,” which is obviously a made-up word. I found one or two other invented words on this album like the word “pasifizers” on the third track. What is the relationship between the music and the words on this album?

AB: As far as “Eyeoneye” goes, I kind of like songs that have words with a lot of vowels in them, words that are palindromes or nearly palindromes. I just like to remind myself that not only are melodies malleable and changeable, but so are words. Words are not a static tradition; someone had to come up with them to begin with. To me morphing words and misunderstanding words and going ahead with those misunderstandings just helps to keep the folk tradition alive. Rather than having a preservationist, purist point of view, I have kind of a free-flowing philosophy about words. I mean, “pasifizers” is no big deal; I just changed the word to make it rhyme. I remember asking my guitarist Jeremy [Ylvisaker] “Is that okay? Can I do that?” and he said, “Of course you can.”

AV: When I found out that I was going to have the opportunity to interview you, I logged onto Twitter and asked for my friends their thoughts on Andrew Bird. One friend replied with “middle-aged white male who is super good at everything he touches.” I looked up your age, 38, and I thought, you know, I don’t really consider that middle-aged. But you have been doing this for a while. Break It Yourself is your 12th album. Some would consider that prolific. How have you maintained your creativity?

AB: Well, I certainly don’t consider myself middle-aged yet. I think when you do it long enough and you spend years playing in bands when you’re younger trying to make a living as a musician, after a while you just know when something isn’t working. You know when something feels futile musically. I think that waking up in the morning and not knowing what is going to come out of you and not thinking that you have it all figured out as far as how to write a song is what maintains the creativity. Not falling prey to using devices, like in film. Not falling into that. If I don’t feel like repeating the chorus, I don’t. I just like to go with my curiosity instead of going straight for the jugular.

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