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Cover Story: Bird Songs

Andrew Bird utilizes every kind of music in making his own

By Brian Baker · April 2nd, 2008 · Cover Story
  For his MusicNOW show, Andrew Bird says he�s
Cameron Wittig

For his MusicNOW show, Andrew Bird says he�s "definitely going to be in a different state of mind."

Seven years ago, I wrote these words in reference to The Swimming Hour, Andrew BirdÕs third album with h

s band Bowl of Fire: ¨The most cognitive fact about Bowl of Fire is that whatever you hear first does not always prepare you for what you hear next.Ó

That sentiment was particularly true concerning The Swimming Hour, an album that fed every imaginable style of music Jazz, Swing, Memphis Soul, Oriental Blues samba, Garage Pop, Flamenco, ethnic Folk, Klezmer, Baroque Pop, Middle Eastern Electronica, Waltz, Psychedelia into its mixmaster Victrola with the express intent of creating a completely unique new sound out of any number of disparate musical familiarities.

The Swimming Hour was BirdÕs last Bowl of Fire album, but his subsequent work has continued to expand and challenge the parameters of musical classification. From album to album, from song to song and often from measure to measure, the truth of 2001 is the truth today: Whatever you hear first from Andrew Bird doesnÕt prepare you for what you hear next.

¨I think that happens naturally from just a kind of restlessness thatÕs not conscious,Ó Bird says from his Chicago home. ¨What IÕve learned from record to record is that whatever worked last time is not going to work this time. When I was going from the second to the third to the fourth record, I was probably more consciously getting a thrill out of offending myself and my own sensibilities a little bit. Now IÕve run out of things to offend myself with. But I think itÕs a good sign when youÕre like, "I canÕt put this out.Õ Whenever I have that impulse, I know itÕs a good sign.Ó

Primarily a violinist, Bird has also become proficient on glockenspiel and guitar and has added an almost Theremin-like whistling talent to his vocal repertoire. For his MusicNOW appearance on Saturday, heÕs decided to push himself into even newer territory which, for him, is saying something.

¨IÕm taking it as an opportunity to do something different, but I donÕt know exactly what thatÕs going to be,Ó Bird says. ¨IÕm more in a writing mode right now.

I just finished a long 15-month push on the road, and IÕm in more of a hibernating/writing state of mind. But IÕve got a lot of melodies and instrumental ideas that IÕve been working on. And IÕm coming straight from Nashville, where IÕm recording the new record, so after a two-week session IÕll be driving straight to Cincinnati to do this show, so IÕm definitely going to be in a different state of mind than I usually am.Ó

Bird has been cultivating different states of mind nearly all his life. His first violin was a ruler taped to a Cracker Jack box, which ultimately led to Suzuki lessons. But he acquired most of his Classical chops by ear.

As a teenager and young adult, he was a restless musical sponge, absorbing all manner of non-Western rhythms and melodies that fascinated him (much of it researched at the extensive music library of Northwestern University, which he attended), although he eventually became enamored of 1920s/Õ30s small group Jazz/Swing music. At 19, he joined a Punk/Ska band and started playing Chicago clubs, which opened him up to the social possibilities of his musical pursuits.

Moving more toward Folk and Hot Jazz, Bird played a festival in North Carolina in 1995 where he saw the antics of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and was persuaded to join their ranks.

¨I gave them a tape and they said, "Hey, do you want to sit in with us?Õ Ó Bird recalls. ¨A couple of weeks later, we were in New Orleans making Hot. That was a good education for me. They were a band that was getting some unexpected success, and they put on a super high-energy show. I watched that and studied that; I was coming from that concert hall thing that I was pretty tired of. I liked the idea of getting the audience excited.Ó

At 22, Bird developed tendonitis from the frequency and intensity of his playing and began to expand his concept of his place in the musical realm. He began writing concise songs that reflected his broad musical exposure and explored his alternate graphic talents with hand-printed posters. He also delved into the entire process of rehearsing a band, creating a set from his songs and putting on a show.

Not long after the release of SNZÕs Hot, Bird created Bowl of Fire. His solo career debuted with 1997Õs Thrill.

¨If I had kept focusing on the violin, I couldnÕt have sustained it,Ó Bird says. ¨I didnÕt really join (Squirrel Nut Zippers). I had the option to, but I remained autonomous and kept my own thing going.Ó

After 1999Õs Oh! the Grandeur and 2001Õs The Swimming Hour, Bird dismantled Bowl of Fire and began working under his name with a more fluid cast of musicians supporting him. His last trio of studio recordings 2003Õs Weather Systems, 2005Õs The Mysterious Production of Eggs (his commercial breakthrough) and last yearÕs phenomenal Armchair Apocrypha have all been widely acclaimed and his three self-released live albums are solid evidence of his passionate energy in front of an audience.

One distinct facet of BirdÕs MusicNOW performance will be his lack of on-stage company. HeÕll be solo in every sense of the word.

¨What I do is I play violin through two different channels and two different sets of speakers,Ó he says. ¨One speaker has the rhythmic, pizzicato stuff, and the other speaker I send the more bowed loops. IÕm creating two different sets of loops, and the way I play one off the other is a big part of the solo show. I play guitar as well, and whistle and sing.Ó

The singularity of BirdÕs performance will be the freshness of the material heÕll be presenting, not the solo aspect of the show. He generally plays about a third of his dates all by himself, just as a matter of physical survival.

¨IÕll send the band home after two weeks of band shows then do four or five solo shows, then bring them back,Ó he says. ¨After a while, the band shows start to feel a little too physical. My fingers are literally bleeding from the adrenaline and the more driving type of show. Then I pull back and play solo shows where you can hear every little nuance. And theyÕre also more subject to my whims. I donÕt have to look for approval from the band to go off on a tangent, so those shows can be a bit liberating.

¨When you have a band, sometimes they can tend to be a bit insular. TheyÕre the ones you have to face at the end of the night, not the audience. When youÕre playing solo, you have to make a plea with the audience, to a degree, like, "Check out how hard this is to pull off and have some sympathy.Õ ThereÕs a more direct, honest dialogue with the audience.Ó

For the classically trained yet Rock-reared Bird, thereÕs always been a dichotomy between the austere reverence of the concert hall and the noisy abandon of the club. He enjoys finding the common bonds between his two worlds.

¨ThereÕs a tension between writing a concise three-minute Pop song and doing something more experimental and interesting,Ó he says. ¨I like to say lately that IÕm afraid IÕm writing songs that might get in the way of making really interesting music. In a three-and-a-half minute song, thereÕs not much time to really let it fly. IÕm always trying to accommodate both, hopefully at the same time. I think thereÕs something immensely challenging about writing a really simple Pop song that gets under your skin.Ó

ANDREW BIRD performs at MusicNOW Saturday at Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine.



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