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A Magazine for Sheffield

Andrew Bird: What's mistaken for closeness is just a case of mitosis

Andrew Bird is an Illinois-based multi-instrumentalist, perhaps best known as a virtuoso violinist and grade A whistler. His music has mutated since his debut album Music of Hair in 1996, having explored jazz, swing, folk, classical, rock and pop. His new album Break It Yourself has a lot in common with its recent predecessors Noble Beast and Armchair Apocrypha, being made up of a delicate mixture of these influences, overlaid with lyrics that are often playful, heartfelt and a little obtuse. Having just finished an exhibition with Ian Schneller featuring custom-made speaker horns at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago (look it up - amazing stuff), Andrew is currently preparing for a US tour, as well as a few shows on this side of the Atlantic. All I will say is that it's not every day you get to talk to someone with a degree in violin performance. So you're over in London at the moment. What are you doing there? I'm here to do a show for A Room for London. They built a boat on top of Queen Elizabeth Hall, overlooking the Thames. It's a one-bedroom apartment and they have writers and musicians...people do residences there. It seemed like something I couldn't turn down. [Full show can be streamed at] Your new album is out in March. How long did it take to record and how did the process differ from other records you've made? It was pretty vastly different from previous records. It was recorded in about eight days on my family farm in Illinois, in a barn, all live to tape. All of us in a room together with no separation. It's a performance. There was that eight days and then a whole year of trying to make it better, but I really came back to the raw performances. I organised another session a year later - same place, same people, same configuration - and kind of cleaned up the rest of the songs. Pretty much what you hear is what happened. Is this the first of your records that you've produced yourself? No, I think I've produced every one of my records. I've never really had a proper producer. I've worked with engineers with an occasional opinion, but never your typical producer. I have control issues, I suppose. I haven't met anyone who I thought would bring more to it than I would. But this album is notable for its lack of production. I've grown tired of what we know as production. Too many records sound like a series of choices rather than a performance. They just sound like karaoke to me. Were there any highlights of the recording process? Any eureka moments? What was most gratifying I think was [first single] 'Eyeoneye'. I debuted it two years ago at a TED conference when it was half written, but the version that's on the record was actually captured by a film crew. You can kind of hear it in the song. We're going through it and it's going reasonably well, and then at some point I think we collectively understand it is going far better than any previous version. Everyone gets excited and the rest of song races to the finish. It's got a real pulse to it. Do you still use looping when playing with the band? Yeah, the live looping was never supposed to replace the band. It's a thing unto itself. I'm completely linked to my drummer via loops, and all four of us are oftentimes making loops. It's just kind of an extension of the instrument. I think it keeps a healthy amount of suspense, even when we're doing live TV. There are loops that can (and often do) go terribly wrong. There have been cases where it didn't work, and we had to make it work on the fly. I would even go as far as to say that it's a cultivated risk. Sometimes things don't have to be that complicated or risky, but it's good for the performance as a whole. Your last release was Useless Creatures. Was that album a way for you to get your passion for pure instrumentals out? It's also a companion record to Noble Beast. Sometimes it's hard to fit it all in to a three-and-a-half minute song, and you feel like you are neglecting a whole aspect of you as a musician, but you're dedicated to song craft and being concise. Every time I come up with a melody I think, "That's perfectly fine as it is." That's why I called it Useless Creatures, because sometimes I feel like it's not valid until it's been worked into a pop song. It's me reminding myself that that doesn't have to be the case. I know it was a long time ago, but what was it like working with the Squirrel Nut Zippers? I'm a big fan and they seem like they would be entertaining people to work with. They definitely were. Each one was a completely different character. For a band that didn't really play rock music per se, it was the ultimate rock 'n' roll cliché of consumption, in-fighting and wild shows. I was 23 when I got on board with them. They were just taking off and it was a very...interesting time. At that time I was into more complex things musically, and that was the first time that I got what an energetic, roll 'n' roll show is all about, and I liked it. Did you enjoy taking part in the Sonic Arboretum project with Ian Schneller and how did you adapt it for the recent exhibition at the MCA in Chicago? The Chicago thing was the first time we really had the space to realise what it was supposed to be, which is this amazing compositional tool. I've been working with Ian for more than ten years developing these different shapes for speaker horns. What's really cool to me is that it's kind of the inverse of a typical tour day. I'd get up, go to work when everyone else does, compose from 9 till 1. At the MCA I was on this balcony overlooking a field of speaker horns. I'd be composing through a hard disk recorder, which would then send it out to different groups of horns and we'd mix it on the fly. It was a totally different experience. It's a whole other way of performing which might be more sustainable and gratifying. Noble Beast reached number 12 in the US charts. Is mainstream success a fairly recent thing for you? No, it started to pick up right after Weather Systems (2003). It's just been a tremendous amount of touring. I'd been touring since 1998 but I was getting nowhere, really. But after that record something just clicked. Still to this day I'm not sure what it was, but at that point I did change the way I was making music. I like to think it's all been driven by the live show. You've probably realised the dream of a lot of musicians by having appeared on the Muppets soundtrack as well. Yeah, the film was really where it was at for me. I wrote four or five songs, of which only one ['The Whistling Caruso'] made it to the film. It's pretty much all whistling and I'm really proud of it. Incidentally, where did you learn to whistle like that? I don't know. I do it incessantly. If I'm not eating, talking or sleeping, I'm usually whistling. I think of it as like a valve for ideas to escape, whether I'm whistling very loud or pretty much just breathing. It's just an every waking moment kind of thing for me. )

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