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Happy Accident Prone: ANDREW BIRD

SS: This is pre-Bowl of Fire material?

AB: No, this is the early Bowl of Fire stuff. Around age 26, I just kind of ran out of stuff.

SS: That’s when you broke off the band structure, too, and were more or less playing solo?

AB: Yeah, but I was really getting into a phase where I stripped away all the ornamentation, all the identifiers that distracted you or made you think this or that specific thing. I thought, “Let’s see if I can write a song with two chords or where the melody is two notes through the whole thing but still make it compelling.” I think that’s where the songs became less intro-verse-bridge-superchorus-superchorus-divertimento and all this stuff you learn to pack in so the style unfolds a little bit, I guess. Songs like “Lull” and “Armchair” just kind of more patiently unfold throughout the course of four to seven minutes.

SS: Since you’ve made the transition into pop-structured music, whistling has become an important part of your songwriting process. It seems to work as an interesting thread throughout the last couple of records. Is the melody of the song born through whistling? Do you end up incorporating the whistling into the song?

AB: It’s all by ear and the people I play with prefer not to even read a chord chart. They want to internalize it as quickly as possible. I think it’s just the best way. Anyway, the whistling is such a casual, intimate, easy way of making music. A lot of times I’ll whistle thinking it’s going to be a violin part or a piano part and it’ll just be a placeholder. When you’re strumming guitar, which is how I generally sit on a couch and work on a song these days, you get done singing and you’re ready to do the melody part, I just whistle. Then when I make the recording I think, “I’m going to replace this because I don’t want to over do the whistling thing,” but the whistle wins almost every time. I’ve been playing this really difficult instrument my whole life and it’s very painful. I went through many stages of physical and emotional pain.

SS: Because of the way you have to hold your neck?

AB: Yeah, and if you do one little thing wrong, it all falls apart. And you’re also going through adolescence and it becomes such a part of your identity, that to suddenly just simply whistle you think, “I can’t do that. It’s too easy. Everything is supposed to be a struggle, right?” It’s coming out of your body. Next to singing, it’s the most — there’s no geometry to it. Sure, I change the shape of my tongue to make the pitch change and everything but it’s impossible to teach. I have this theory about melodies. As they’re first developing, they stay in this gaseous state before you pick up any instrument, especially if you play piano or guitar — things with frets or keys — the geometry of the instrument is going to influence it. Most guitarists or pianists would know that when you sit down, you fall into this physical memory: every time you pick it up you start playing the same chords, but if it stays kind of fluid from singing or whistling, the melodies end up being a lot more unique and less formulaic.

SS: Do you still primarily write on violin, or do you move around to different instruments depending on the song?

AB: I go to my barn and hardly ever play the violin if it’s not going through some chain of looping pedals into an amp. That’s mainly what I do out there is just make loops all day long and I’m teaching myself how to make the song work. I’ll make a loop and then I’ll go make lunch and I’ll keep the loop going. I’ll be singing over it and refining the little sweet spots and I’ll go back to it and change it. So that’s the only way I’ll use the violin but if I’m just simply working on singing a song or lyrics, I generally sit down on a couch with a guitar. That’s just become so easy. I didn’t know how to play the guitar six years ago.

SS: It doesn’t seem like you’re restricting yourself from using technological gadgetry either. I know the last record you did you collaborated with Martin Dosh, and his influence on the record certainly stood out.

AB: On this one I worked more with Jeremy Ylvisaker, who is my guitarist now. All these guys are from Fog and this underground, Minneapolis scene. It’s true. On the last record I worked a little more with Dosh. This time, Jeremy was my righthand man. We basically did demos at the Wilco loft last March. I still hadn’t finished writing the songs, but we made these demos and I sent them to Dosh in Minneapolis. He puts his kids to bed and stays up all night making loops with found objects. Dosh began working on the fly. You can’t seem to do that very well when you’re under the gun in the studio.

There’s always gadgetry involved but it’s not very fussy. Whatever works. I’m the same way. He sent us these loops and Jeremy and I went to Nashville, and recorded everything with an old Martin and an old Hummingbird just singing live with two guitars to these loops. So it was like the three of us were there, we just don’t need Dosh missing his family while he’s laying down a simple drum part.

SS: You’ve been playing bigger venues in recent years, but was it difficult at first — especially when you broke out of the Bowl of Fire band structure — to take what you do when making the albums and transpose that into a live show?

AB: I was completely solo in the Weather System years, even part of The Mysterious Production of Eggs. I would just get in my car and go and tour by myself. Then I added Dosh. But just because I’m adding musicians doesn’t mean I stop doing all the multi-tasking. I’m afraid to. I think the best shows of the last five or six years have been solo shows.

SS: There has to be a weird perfectionist side of you that likes to multitask on stage and do it all yourself. Obviously it’s probably nerve-racking at times.

AB: What I like about it actually is that nothing can go too terribly wrong.

SS: Even with live TV appearances and webcasts?

AB: The more musicians you add, the more variables there are and the more things can get grayer. I can always pull out of a nosedive solo and make it part of the show. I have to engage the audience more and just be like, “Look, what can I do? It’s just me I’m just going to show you what I do.”

SS: Was that easy for you, initially, to perform solo?

AB: It took me a while to accept that it was valid and not have this thing in the back of my head like no one’s going to feel like they didn’t get their money’s worth because they didn’t get more musicians on stage or something. But pretty quickly I realized I was actually building my audience faster because it’s not what you’re expecting to hear in a club. I would just stand up their and fill my lungs with air and hold a note with a whistle until people stopped socializing and started listening to the show and then I’d start. I think people also see how dangerous and perilous the show is and they get a feeling that there’s suspense involved. They feel a little bit invested and when I screw up — and for some reason can’t get that loop in time and I start over once, then twice — the suspense starts building and everyone’s on the cusp, either rooting for me or like, “Come on.” Usually they’re rooting for you. Anything that engages people more is good.

SS: What keeps you so prolific? There haven’t been any lulls since you turned 26.

AB: I don’t know. I never had a feeling like everything’s been done and when people would say that I’d get mad because it’s just such a cop out. There’s so much good music to be made. You just have to pinch yourself now and then to remind yourself.

SS: With all the downtime in your traveling, it seems like you’d have little pockets of time to work out your songs. Is that true?

AB: It is. But not as much as when I used to drive myself. That was very productive.

SS: The road trip aspect of it?

AB: And seeing what’s in front of you. Now that we’re on buses and in this cave of bunks, again only looking three feet in front of you, it’s a little harder to find that vital window. Also, there are more demands for interviews and stuff like that. Being in a foreign city with a couple of hours to kill is a pretty great feeling and just walking around in an unfamiliar town, I get tons of ideas. Then sound check is usually a good place to try them out.

But every year it gets more and more intense even though I have more help. I’ve been on the road for 13 years and it’s getting up to around 200 shows a year. The velocity is increasing. It depends on the year, but some years have gotten really heavy. We keep adding new countries to go to and it’s really hard to resist.


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