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Happy Accident Prone: ANDREW BIRD

An online exclusive interview

Cameron WitAndrew Bird / Photograph by CAMERON WITTIG

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

By JC Gabel


Andrew Bird, a native Chicagoan who is proficient on guitar, violin, whistling, mandolin and glockenspiel, released his superb fourth solo album, Noble Beast, this past January on Fat Possum Records. Prior to “going solo,” Bird fronted his first band, Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire. Largely influenced by music composed in the first half of the 20th century, BOF unified their sound around traditional folk, pre-War jazz and swing music sensibilities, perfectly captured on their first two albums, Thrills and Oh! The Grandeur (Rykodisc). By the band’s third album, The Swimming Hour (Rykodisc), Bird starting tinkering with more straight-forward pop music. In 2003, the group disbanded. From there, Bird ventured out on his own with three albums — Weather Systems, The Mysterious Production of Eggs and Armchair Apocrypha — solidifying his skills as a musical and lyrical polymath: Each album got progressively better as he found his own voice. Witty and well-read, Bird’s songwriting process is more refined — he builds his songs around verbose ideas, violin loops or strumming his guitar — and yet they’re so catchy you’ll find yourself humming (or whistling) along the first time you hear them.

Earlier this year, Bird sat down with STOP SMILING to talk about his new record, his Midwest roots, his daily routines and the improvisational happy accidents that, practiced over time, have turned him into one of the most prolific songwriters and musicians of his generation.


Stop Smiling: Do you still follow a daily routine where you get up everyday, go outside, get some eggs, make an omelette, brew up some coffee and hang out with the chickens and cows?

Andrew Bird: Yeah. I don’t really associate with the animals too much. The farm is a good 400 acres. I just put on my galoshes and walk for hours. You’re always finding new stuff out there. There’s varied terrain: cornfields and soybeans and there’s a beautiful creek that runs through it. It’s kind of in a valley so you walk up the valley; there are springs and forests, cliffs and caves. There’s a lot going on.

SS: It sounds like a great place to unwind. Is that how you work out some of your creative ideas? Is that why you go out there — just to get away from the clutter of city life or touring?

AB: Yeah, that’s the simple explanation. But I have this theory — when you’re in the city, you’re rarely looking more than three feet in front of you and I think that kind of calibrates your brain in a certain way and of course that’s going to affect what you hear. If you can see the horizon all day long, your eyes focus differently and I think you hear different music.

SS: How did you settle on this one town three hours from Chicago?

AB: It’s a family farm that my folks got when I was 12. No one lives on the farm except for me sometimes. But I was looking to build a cabin out there and I thought, “Why don’t I build something if there are these 120-year-old structures that are going to fall apart unless you do something with them?” So I took the best looking barn and went about converting it. We had to bring in cables, because it kind of looked like it had been exploded a little bit. You could see the grass growing through the barn boards but the bones were good. We just kind of pulled it in with some cables and then we sprayed in some insulation and we just kinda pulled it all back together. It’s been amazing. I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time. I just had this impulse to get out of the city. Now it’s like, “Of course. It all makes sense.” I thought I was building a studio to record a record in, but that didn’t really work out. It’s really just a studio in the traditional sense of the word.

SS: Did you still keep your apartment in Chicago?

AB: For three years, I couldn’t afford one when I built the place so I was out there full time for three years. I was either on tour on someone’s couch here or there.

SS: I’m just curious how you got immersed in music from such a young age?

AB: My mom put me in a Suzuki school when I was four years old. She was great. She started playing violin with me. That’s part of the idea: You start with your mom. So it’s not a me-against-you kind of thing. Well, she’d have to force me to practice a little bit but it wasn’t a struggle. It was all kind of fun and games and the next thing you know you can play pretty well. Then I learned something all by ear. Suzuki is kind of a pre-fab oral tradition for suburbs. It just kind of swept the nation in the Seventies. It’s a really interesting thing. It’s a harmless form of fascism in a way. Fascism is usually associated with militarism and harshness but it was just teaching kids how to play instruments as bits of language. So that could be misconstrued. What I am saying is that it was this one-room schoolhouse where you all wear matching outfits and you march in lines and you can’t not see the nationalistic undertones to it.

SS: So if you learned all by ear, is it easier for you to pick up other instruments and just tinker with them?

AB: Well, not so much other instruments as other musical languages. I would hear something on the radio and either learn it very quickly or make something up that sounded like that, something that was in that vein. I didn’t have any inhibitions about making that leap. Also, there’s no middleman between the music in my head and being able to play it. I found I had an ability to pick up little subtle inflections really quickly in some styles of music — say it’s South Indian or gypsy or Irish. They all have little ornaments or turns that pin it as that thing and I could immediately do whatever it took to physically make all the inferences without thinking about it and do those things.

SS: Did you have to search for that music?

AB: Growing up in the suburbs you’re not exposed to a whole lot. There was a lot of trial and error trying to find the kind of jazz I liked. It took a while. The first thing that gets put in front of you is either heady bebop stuff or more abstract stuff so it took me a while to find the Thirties stuff — Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges — all the stuff that made a little more sense to my aesthetic. I see the difference between Charlie Parker and Lester Young versus Louie Armstrong like this: When the swing guys are improvising, they’re trying to find a melody; whereas Charlie Parker and John Coltrane are trying to take you on this linear journey through deep water and don’t help you get back. A Lester Young solo is no less sophisticated — it may be more so. He’s trying to find a melody, just in the spur of the moment. But yeah, I bought a lot of crappy records before I found the ones I liked. When I was at Northwestern they had a great music library, all vinyl. I lived in the music library. You’d go through the stacks and pull out an LP, they’d hand you some huge headphones and you’d sit there. I was looking for something. Week to week I’d be absorbed in some new thing. That education phase went up to when I was 26 maybe so the first couple of records I was mixing figuring out how to write songs with still learning.

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