Chicago-based experimental songwriter Andrew Bird has long been admired in the music press for his grandiose take on indie-pop.
Across a clutch of albums, dating back to 1996, the multi-instrumentalist and ex-member of Squirrel Nut Zippers has developed a sound rooted in pop, but bursting with an ambition lacking in so many regular strummers. He also enjoys a whistle.
And whistling is one of many varied sounds that pepper his wonderful new album, ‘Noble Beast’. Due later this month, Bird’s latest is sure to see his reputation – cemented on 2007’s much-acclaimed ‘Armchair Apocrypha’ LP – translate into winder audiences and greater commercial success.
You can read a full feature on Andrew Bird in issue 35 of Clash magazine, out in early February. In the meantime, we got Bird on the phone to talk about his very interesting (to say the least) live set, incorporating many a loop. He tours the US through February.
How did your elaborate solo show come about? Were there various evolutionary stages?
I just did it on a whim five to six years ago when the Handsome Family asked me to open for them and my band wasn't available. I was living full-time at my barn in rural Illinois and messing around with this looping pedal. Having a lot of time on your hands is pretty key to mastering live looping, where the timing has to be precise. The looping forces limitations on your songwriting in a good way I think. You have to boil the song down to its basic elements for it to work. Over the years I've added glockenspiel and whistling, multiple channels for handclaps and vocals and gotten a little better with the guitar, but that first show which is on (bootleg-style live album) 'Fingerlings 1' is as good as anything I've done since.
Could you talk us through the most complicated of your songs, in terms of their live arrangements?
Until this new record, 'A Nervous Tic Motion…' was the most complex. Now it's 'Anonanimal' and 'The Water Jet Cilice' which I have to be stone-sober to pull off. ‘Anonanimal’ starts with a bowed loop in 7/8, which builds to this seven-layer thing. Then I sing this tricky line where I bow the same notes as I sing. Then I turn that off switching to a different looper and start this polyrhythmic pattern using an octave pedal for bass notes and a filter to get this metallic-sounding riff. Then I go to the original looper and erase the intro loop by recording arco strings, turning it on and off for the verses and on again for the chorus. The hardest part comes after the breakdown where I roll back on my heels so I can trigger both loops at the same time with my toes. By the end of the song I've been concentrating so hard I feel kind of stunned like I've had a minor aneurism. I try not to be overly choreographed and stay connected to that feeling I had when I first wrote the song.
How do you set about writing a song - is it music or lyrics first, and at what point do you decide on the instrumentation?
It usually starts with a melody that possesses me and comes out of me through whistling or singing. More often these days it comes out strong and stubborn and I just try to write some lyrics that live up to the strength of the melody. The song tells me what it wants. I may think it should be violin or piano but the whistle almost always wins. It’s such an inherently casual way of making music. I'm very sensitive to tone and a fuzz guitar here or the perfect dry snare sound there can have a huge emotional impact. You just step back and listen and you know.
Are you quite demanding when it comes to collaboration? Is working alone more liberating?
I suppose I am demanding, but my new band just kind of know what to do and they want to do a good job. If I'm playing with someone and they take some stylistic detour I can't help but unconsciously follow and next thing you know you're not playing your own unique music anymore. So I'm very careful who I play with. On the other hand I don't want to have to tell anyone what exactly to play. I have to play alone every couple of days to remind myself who it's for and to connect to the audience. With a band, it's tempting to play for them and not so much the audience. The band generates this visceral energy which can be a thrill, but if you're not in the mood it can quickly become physical memory.
Have you ever confused yourself, or the audience, with the pedalling? I was up in the balcony at one of your gigs and thought there was a string section below me, at first...
It is a bit disorienting at first as to where the sound is coming from, and is what you're hearing at the moment really what I'm playing now or what I played 12 seconds ago...? I get confused, sure, but I can visualise the loop and its shape. It’s like a cloud that hangs between me and the audience and I can crawl between the notes and carve away a little E from the top while I add more G at the bottom. I can follow any whim or play some melody I heard on the street that day. I stumble through a show like this tripping over wires, eyes closed, knowing that nothing can really go that wrong. If I hit the wrong button or lose my balance I know its not grave, just make something beautiful happen.
Pick up the March edition of Clash for a fuller feature on Andrew Bird, and find him on MySpace HERE.