Andrew Bird is many things — classically trained violinist, whistler, guitarist, and master of on-stage performance technology — but only lately has he become something of a rock star. Bird was a frequent guest with the Squirrel Nut Zippers and later fronted Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, but now his amazing solo act (featuring multi-instrumentalist Martin Dosh) is headed to the Bowery Ballroom later this month.
The L Magazine: Rock fans tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to acts that are classically trained. How do you think you’ve managed to avoid this?
Andrew Bird: I never really embraced the classical mind-set. I resisted the methodology and the “worker-bee” social structure. I’m not too precious or sacred about what happens as long as it’s musical and something new and exciting happens. I’ll play crappy if it’s called for. I play like I whistle, it’s a shot-in-the-dark-and-see-if-you- land-on-your-feet approach.
The L: Your songs are arranged very differently on stage than on your records — different instrumentations, melodies more improvised. At what point does a song just become a different song?
AB: I hope it’s always a different song. The audience can sense when you’re taking chances. Not that it’s free jazz or anything. It’s succinct, humm-able pop and there are themes you can connect to the records. But I’m always prodding myself to reconnect live with the moment I wrote the song.
The L: You also seem pretty bent on being independent as a solo performer. Having played in larger bands, which setting do you prefer?
AB: With more people on stage, especially drums, I start to feel possessed of a sort of swagger and I sing differently, more elemental. But I’m cursed with feeling like the perpetual host to my band and can start to feel hemmed in night after night. This drummer/keyboard duo allows me to get the full range from cathartic freak out to the textural subtlety and honesty of a solo thing.
The L: You often cite classical or jazz works when asked for your favorite albums. Have there been any pop records recently that you’ve really taken to?
AB: I just got my copy of the new My Morning Jacket record and I’m prepared to really like it. M. Ward’s latest is a pleasure. Maybe its the way I’ve been hurling through space these days, but I’m coming to really appreciate slow and gentle music like Yo La Tengo and Low, which I honestly would have found boring a few years back.
The L: A lot of your lyrics seem to focus on the apocalypse. Do you really think we’ll see it in our lifetime? What’s your straight-up forecast?
AB: It’s what I call armchair eschatology. I find myself fantasizing about the apocalypse from a safe distance. Knowing that if it happened for real it would be a drag. It’s getting easier to imagine a real apocalypse of late, such that one could get nostalgic for the “Beyond Thunderdomes” and “where have all the flowers gone.” My fantasy apocalypse only gets rid of the bad shit and even though the economic infrastructure has collapsed everyone takes care of each other and there are plenty of snacks. It might take an apocalypse or a sudden shift in the laws of physics to wake us up.
The L: We have to ask, is Bird your real name? Or is it just a ploy to draw attention to your whistling skills?
AB: My real name is Andrew Wegman Bird. I didn’t start whistling on records till the last few years.
The L: Your last couple albums made a lot of fuss not just for the music, but also for Jay Ryan’s artwork. How did you get involved with him, and what do you think it is about his work that fits your music so well?
AB: I met Jay in ‘97 at Screwball Press. We’ve been good pals since. I think we have a similar sense of humor. He is a master of the subtle visual twist. I think illustration lends itself to these songs. We tried to come up with visual clues to lyrics that are neither narrative nor linear — clues but not answers. Altogether the most satisfying collaboration I’ve had to date.
The L: Even though you use a ton of effects and looping devices on stage, you still usually bring along a live drummer. Are you hesitant to experiment with a drum machine live?
AB: I may prefer electronic beats on occasion, but I rely on a certain elasticity of rhythm in the live show. However, Dosh and I have been experimenting with synchronizing our loops as he mics his own drums and Rhodes. Pre-recorded playback is a slippery slope and can lead to quantized stagnation. Both of us agree that it has to be live and dangerous.