Interview: Andrew Bird

This Saturday, violinist, whistler, incessant live music-looper, and incredibly creative guy, Andrew Bird will be taking stage at the House of Blues. Houstonist had a brief chat with Bird discussing his influences, lyrics and what someone attending his live show might expect.

031809_birdrain.jpg One of the coolest things in the world is ‘finding’ an artist or band that until a certain point you never knew was out there. Back in the 80’s there were many people who held bands like REM close to the vest because there was something just so amazing that in some ways they didn’t want to ‘share’ with other people this amazing gem. Out of curiosity, Houstonist spoke with several friends this week who we consider to be somewhat savvy in the ways of music. Every one of them knew who Andrew Bird was and in fact, simply would not shut up about your music. With past appearances in Letterman and even Jack’s Big Music Show you are slowly creeping into popular consciousness, so first question - how has life changed for you in the last 13 years since your first album and were you to compare that first album with the most recent album, how would you describe your growth as a musician?

I’ve always believed in the live performance, getting out there for long stretches and constantly playing - whether I needed to or not. I believe music should be a living tradition - to be live, and part of culture, even if it’s just to 50 people a night. I’m kind of a workaholic and I like the struggle. From the first record to my current record, I pretty much stand by the first songs I ever wrote. I wouldn’t do them the same way today - I would probably shed some of the stylish things I was into. Like any songwriter, you start off with your favorite records, for me it was Fats Waller and Lester Young. When I was 22 or 23 I thought, “That’s as good as music gets as far as I’m concerned, I’m going to write some songs like that, then I needed lyrics.” 031809_birdsitting.jpg So I could change the lyrics from any song on the first record and write it today. Over the course of eight records, I think I’ve become less interested in stylized music and got greedier, wanting to write the whole song. Right up to the record, Weather Systems, where I wrote a song called “Lull” which not only had two chords in the whole song, but it only had two notes for the melody, back and forth. If I’m playing with two notes -how can I make that compelling enough and the best song with stylistic instrumentation? That’s the challenge for any student, music fan, or songwriter, writing music when completely constrained.

You were musically educated from a very early age with what is known as the Suzuki method, a discipline or theory that states that music - like one’s mother tongue - can be learned much easier despite any level of complexity earlier rather than later. Assuming then, that music is a language; as you’ve grown over the years have you become more influenced by certain dialects? Where do you draw your strongest influences from?

That kind of relates to what I was saying before, about inflection - like I’ve found because I learned by ear, that I could pick up other musical languages very easily. I got into Irish music, Scandinavian music, anything - I was just going all over the world and looking up what was distinguishable. I guess the question becomes “what language do I use as a songwriter?”
Now when I write a song I try to play with more things sometimes, (keeping it) childlike, less dirty - like no vibrato, no turns - just very pure. It’s interesting - that’s where it ended up - just stripping away all of these things that draw your ear. You can hear a certain inflection and think “that’s country or that’s western swing” and it just pulls you into that location, and sometimes that can be a distraction - at a certain point I just want to write a good song.

Houstonist can confirm that you’ve written some good ones. In your writing process, do you find that the words come first or the music?

Generally the music is first, with some exceptions - like the song “Nomenclature.” I let that word tell me what the song should sound like. It’s such a cool word - it’s got such a rhythm to it. It’s unique and I just let the sound of the word decide. But generally I have a very fully formed methodology, like the song “Natural Disaster” for instance, where it’s just a struggle to come up with words that do justice to it. But a song like “Anonanimal” is kind of a groove - or from a previous record like the song “Sovay” that was more like finding words, like rambling in a polyrhythmic sort of pattern. I’d say I’m more of a melody person.

Houstonist feels the word “Hospitable” would make for an excellent song. Speaking of the song “Anonanimal” the lyrics are “I will become this animal, Perfectly adapted to the music halls, I will become this animal” - Is this song autobiographical and if so, which animal have you become?

Yeah, that came from a moment when I was playing at Hollywood Bowl, when I was sitting in the audience area while they were testing the sound system. I was trying to connect to how cool it was that I was about to do this. I was having trouble, sometimes it’s hard stay connected to where you are, and it’s like you’re in survival mode all the time. I was thinking - “what is it that I do? What kind of animal have I evolved into?” “How have I changed into when I have to be so specifically adapted to just get through the day and get on stage?”
For some reason I just keep thinking of animals that were a certain shape, like a sea anemone. I just imagine an animal in an environment that is very sensory deprived and those skills they develop to survive.

Do you find that when writing you return to certain themes and if so what are they?

I would say probably the biggest one has been science. Science in a way where there is a scientist who is a protagonist who is trying to quantify something - searching for some empirical formula - looking for the correct answer and he fails to do it. People will ask me if I’m interested in biology or science, and I say “No, not especially.” Most songs find me.

What can the citizens of Houston look forward to in your live show?

There’s a lot going on on-stage and it’s all dangerous, perilous and live. There’ll be a lot of live looping going on with the violin and the drums. Now that I’ve added three other band members, you’d think I could just take it easy and just sing, but I’m still doing a lot. There’s also some beautiful sculpture that I play with, some speakers I play violin through that are visually arresting. It’s pretty high energy compared to the records I do.

Andrew Bird w/ Heartless Bastards
Admission: $20-$25
Date and Time: Saturday March 21st, 9 P.M.
Location: House of Blues
1204 Caroline Street
(888) 402-5837

Photo: Keith Klenowski, Cameron Wittig -

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