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Andrew Bird, 'Break It Yourself': Indie-Folkster on His Whistling Origins and Getting 'Weird' With the Muppets
- Posted on Mar 5th 2012 4:15PM by Theo Spielberg
"In the past I was a little more careful about letting songs sound too idiosyncratic or something like that," Bird explains to Spinner. "Now I just don't care."
In the Q&A below, the soft-spoken multi-instrumentalist explains why his latest record took so long to make, how whistling can speak louder than words and the importance of leisure.
You have an interesting new sales model, wherein everybody who buys a ticket to your tour gets a free album download as well as two live EPs. What inspired that?
It's a way of acknowledging that the real growth has been, to me, in the live world. I wanted to acknowledge the fans who are devoted to coming to shows and connect that with the record. They also get a bunch of exclusive tracks. It's a way of saying thank you, I guess. There is a nominal three or four dollars more per ticket but ticket costs are on the low side anyway. We'll see how it goes. I hope people appreciate it.
You also include a DVD called 'Here's What Happened.' What exactly is included on that?
Well see, the record was made in two sessions, a year apart, in my barn in western Illinois. The first was August 2010 and the second was August 2011. We got most of it in the first session. The second one, we did it exactly the same: Didn't change a thing, brought everyone back down from Minneapolis. We had the same friend of ours cooking for us and we had a two-person crew filming us jamming through all the songs. And that's where we nailed the version of 'Eyeoneye' that's on the record, completely live. You get to see exactly how we recorded this -- it was not posed in the least. You can see that there are just four people in a room playing music together with no separation, with no overdubs, no production, no razzle-dazzle. That's why it's called 'Here's What Happened.'
Why did you wait a full year in between sessions?
Well, for once, I was not incredibly anxious to release a record as soon as it was done. I decided to take my time with this one, writing it and mixing it and retooling things. As soon as you put a record out there are enormous expectations to work your ass off and I wasn't ready to do that. I'd been doing that for 15 years. Most people take four or five years off between records -- I've gone pretty much back-to-back for four or five records. A little more leisurely approach to things is also good for the creative process.
You also worked on 'The Muppets.' What was that like?
Yeah, I did a lot for the Muppets movie. I wrote four or five songs on spec based on the script. I was in a pool of songwriters that were writing on spec. They ended up going with a lot more cover tunes but I at least got 'The Whistling Caruso' in there. That was cool. It was fun working back and forth with James Bobin, the 'Flight of the Conchords' director. I know those guys are funny and kind of subversive and a little weird, so it was easy to do revisions for them because I knew what they were trying to get.
Speaking of whistling, when did you first realize you were such a consummate whistler, and has that always been such a major part of your music?
Yeah, I've been doing it since I was a little kid. I also was playing the violin, which is a really difficult instrument to learn how to play. It's physically painful and takes years and years to master. I never would've thought whistling was a valid way of making music, even though I did it incessantly. It took me a while to get up the nerve to put it in my own music. You're used to things just being hard: If it's not hard, it's not good. That's not true but it's what you think. I started doing it more when I went solo. I found it was a really effective way to get people to focus and stop their conversations. I was out there in the trenches doing solo shows. Sometimes I would just start the show by filling my lungs with air and holding out a whistle note for as long as I could. By the time I was done people would be completely silent. I knew there was more than the casual 'Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay' connection to whistling.
Whistling and violin do seem to complement each other in their quality and timbre.
Yeah, violin is sort of mid-rangy and when I loop the violin it creates these warmer textures. The whistling is more like glass. Violin is wood and the whistle is glass. It cuts right through all those warm textures, just pierces right through it. It's become part of my palette of sounds that I work with and probably will always work with.
You recorded this album in your barn. Has that been a standard practice for you?
This is the only one I've fully recorded and released that was done in the barn. I've developed the last five records in the barn but it's almost too sacred of a place to bring that kind of madness into. It has been more of a place to escape to. That's what these sessions were. They were not supposed to yield a record. I wanted to give the band the luxury of jamming together for a week instead of just throwing things together onstage like we usually do. We are not the kind of band that likes to rehearse. I like to reveal the process onstage. In the past I've really just said, "OK, here we go. You remember how this song goes." Not that it's ramshackle or anything -- all these guys I play with come from a jazz background so they can hang with things being loose. That under-rehearsed feeling usually comes off pretty good. But yeah, it was just supposed to be a rehearsal jam session that we rolled tape on and it turned into a record.
Was there a point during the sessions when you thought to yourself, "Oh my god, I have an album?"
Yeah. I think day three or something, we had gotten down a couple things. We took a break and listened back. We were sitting outside in the beautiful late summer afternoon. We just listened back together and everyone was like, "Yeah. There's nothing wrong with that." One of my favorite recordings is 'Fatal Shore' because it is so far back on the beat. You don't get that kind of feel when you're all hopped up to make a record. You get that feel when you're kind of exhausted and just don't care too much. That was a late-night take. I think I'm more proud of this record than any one that came before it.