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Happy Accident Prone: ANDREW BIRD

SS: Did you book your own shows initially?

AB: Yeah, I booked the first tour myself. We just hopped in a van and went. We had huge gaps with no shows and the band just hanging out. It wasn’t ideal but, yeah, I’ve never had anyone swoop in and just takeover. I do everything and then I start thinking, “I can’t do this anymore,” and someone else takes over. It’s been good because I know the workings of it all.

SS: You once said that you’ve “always been fascinated by obscure corners of history.” It seems like you read a lot, and that somehow works its way into the songwriting process.

AB: I’ve noticed what I respond to, here’s an example: reading Anna Karenina, there are two halves of the book. There’s the dry account of Russian peasant life in 1880s or whatever and the up-close-and-personal tragic love story. It keeps switching between the two. You can probably guess which one works for me. I kind of like dry history because it’s just like a blueprint for your imagination. I’ve always liked music that way, too, where there’s a lot of room for you to let your imagination go. So I like reading books that tell you, “Here’s what was happening all around the world in 1440,” or something like that. It’s completely satisfying. I’m reading a book about a very detailed, dry account of the Komanche Indians. I like that kind of broad overview and then going into specific questions about what their life was like from day to day. I also like finding archaic language that’s out of the vernacular. I think vagary also triggers my imagination; things get garbled and lost in translation scenarios.

SS: Have you always been a voracious reader?

AB: I don’t like sitting still very long. That’s my only problem with reading. I read a lot when I fly, but on show days I don’t read very much. I’m strangely unable to focus on anything else but the show. Like I said, being in these tour buses looking out the window, I can’t really connect to the scenery that’s going past me. It could just be a projection. It feels that way. I worry that doing too much of that can warp you. Again: that whole theory of seeing what’s in front of you.

SS: Do you think being from the Midwest influences your creative process, in the sense that you didn’t grow up in an industry town like New York or LA, or even Washington, DC?

AB: Yeah, I think it does. When I do go to those towns I think, “What? You’ve got your own shit going on. Why are you bothering to come to my show?” I guess I’ve always had that attitude. I just go home and I work. I guess there is a work ethic that I notice in Chicago, and it’s even more extreme in Minneapolis, and there are a lot of people working really hard to put on some kind of spectacle or show, a one-time show that never happens again.

SS: So you’re looking for the happy accident?

AB: I’m looking for that.

SS: Like an improvisational jazz musician?

AB: Yeah, I’ve got that instinct. I’ve got that in my blood, except I’m doing pop songs. I’ll hold on to the bare minimum structure of a song and always whistle. Beyond that it’s all up for grabs. The people I play with are the same way. We could never do the whole, “Okay, let’s recreate those 13 songs on the record” and perform these little nuggets night after night, everyone playing their role night after night. That’s just creative death.

SS: It seems like that’s the grueling thing that would force someone to want to stop touring or make music.

AB: I always think if you’re bored, it’s your own fault. You can’t blame it on anybody or anything else. If all the elements are there for something creative to happen, it just takes a lot of energy every time you go on stage to be like, “Okay, just cause it worked the night before, that’s the reason not to do it again.” And it’s tough. That takes a lot of energy. That’s what happens on tours. You get into this physical memory and motor skill choreography and that’s the death of what I feel would be a good show. I’d feel let down if something new didn’t happen at every show, even if everyone loved it and freaked out. I’d still go back to the bus and feel kind of empty if I had to do the same thing over and over again.

SS: How would this new record differ from the last few in the way you put it together? And what you hope to accomplish when playing these songs live to people?

AB: With this record I actually had a clear idea of what I wanted it to sound like. Whereas in the past it had been, “I’ll know it when I hear it,” and “This is just what happened,” and there’s a lot of editing and sequencing that makes it hang together. For this one, now that I don’t go into a record store and think, “Oh, cool. What could I hear today?” Now I think, “Well, maybe I’ll make that record I want to hear.” Really what I wanted to hear was this interlocking, tapestry of finger-style acoustic guitar, violin and woody, grainy sounds. I even got as far as every time I thought of the way I wanted this record to sound, I kept thinking mossy, steamy, fecund. Those were the keywords. I think of a little spring that’s out on my farm and where the water comes out of the roots of this tree. Everything is covered in that furry, soft moss. Just down at the end of the spring, there was a dead cow carcass that was decaying all the while I was working on this record. I’d go out there and it’d be a little more devoured. After the record was done, I could almost pull together this whole overlying concept of macro to micro. I was trying to classify each song in terms of to what degree am I focused on the universe or some microscopic thing. I almost pulled it off, but then I’d start to resist concepts like that.

SS: Do you write most of the lyrics off the cuff?

AB: Everything is just kind of a blob in your head and it just starts to take shape. You realize you’re not writing three songs, you’re writing one song. You’re talking about the same thing so you can cut some stuff out. It takes me a while. Sometimes I’m sticking one piece on another song to see if they have anything to say to one another. If they don’t, I keep mixing and matching until they seem to make some sense.

SS: Do you set deadlines for yourself?

AB: With this record, I was working really fast for me. I finished working on the last record in February and I went straight in whether the songs were done or not. A lot of times I was singing the vocal takes before I decided what tense it was in. I left some places blank because I hadn’t really worked out what I was talking about yet. Well, I don’t fill notebooks full of poetry and then say it’s music. It bubbles up in me just like the melodies do. The melodies kind of come out fully formed, and I see them as being etched in something. There’s a depression. Then you turn on the word valve and the words float to the top and you see what catches in the groove.

SS: What’s the significance of the name Noble Beast?

AB: It’s like everything with lyrics. Things take on a weight, a significance and you’re not sure why. Only because they keep reoccurring so you assume there must be some significance to it. It’s borderline metaphysical shit going on. I don’t usually go in for that, but the songwriting process makes you think of that. You know how when you’re walking through a library and you think something, then suddenly you see a title that has the same thing? It’s a weird coincidence and you ask, “Is that really a coincidence?" You get fixated on something. I kept thinking Greek Cypriots for like a month. So I had to put it in the song. It’s just too important.

SS: Were you reading about Greek Cypriots?

AB: I wasn’t. I guess I was thinking about Crete, Cyprus, the Minoans, etc. I guess that might have had something to do with it. I was thinking about how even very tiny countries can be very divisive. Thinking about our own country, and of a place like Portugal, where people in the North consider themselves vastly different from people in the South. That became part of the song “Tenuousness.” That song on its surface sounds very scattered and free association, but I’m really just trying to get a feel of how random and chaotic everything is and how does the earth not spin off its axis? That’s what you get when you’re traveling all the time: a sense of impending chaos all the time. Rather than thinking the world is so fucked up, why is the world not more fucked up? How does it all hold together? So that’s it: You start with a phrase like Greek Cypriots and then you end up with something that really is meaningful to you.





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