Whistler, Suzuki-trained violinist, and all-around musical polymath Andrew Bird scored his biggest success so far with 2005's terrific The Mysterious Production Of Eggs, which introduced his offbeat, complex songwriting to a new audience. Shortly afterward, he found a simpatico partner in Minneapolis drummer and loop artist Martin Dosh, who joined Bird on tour and later brought him to Minnesota for the recording of Bird's follow-up album, the remarkable Armchair Apocrypha. Bird, on tour with Dosh and guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker, recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the new album, the importance of improvising, and the drawbacks of the minor key.
The A.V. Club: How did you approach the recording of Armchair Apocrypha differently than Mysterious Production Of Eggs?
Andrew Bird: It was quite a bit different. I think the first song we recorded was "Plasticities," which Martin Dosh and I had just started playing together. That was one of the first songs where we were just experimenting with us both looping and combining our distinct universes with each other. We went into Third Ear [Studio] in Minneapolis and recorded basically what we do live, which is him building a loop on drums while I'm building a loop on violin—which is a risky way to go. You don't have as much control, but we thought, "This is working really well live, so let's just try it like we do it [on stage]." And it worked out really well.
There were a lot of things we couldn't fix because of the way we did it. But I've just learned that you never know which approach is going to work, so I try every possible one and see which one's the best. That can be a bit grueling and can take a while. But this one was a little more… I was determined to get more of the ecstasy that comes in a live show, and more of the zinging out that I do in a live show, the feverishness that comes over me onstage. It's really hard to get in that state of mind in an empty studio in a basement in Minneapolis in February. But we did everything we could to create that bigger sound. Eggs had an intimacy to the vocals which worked just fine for that record, but it's generally not an aesthetic that I'm a big fan of—that sound of a voice right in your ear, whispering quietly. It's just not the way I like to sing. That's the difference right there. And there's Dosh's input on stuff, his style of playing.
AVC: The electric guitar is more prominent on Armchair than it was on Eggs. It seems like the whole "rock" aspect has been kicked up a notch.
AB: I suppose you could say that. That's just the way things went. There's no electric guitar solos per se, but I played an old Jaguar guitar. That's just what felt the best, sounded the best. But there are earlier versions of "Heretics," for instance, that I did in Chicago that were just me on a parlor guitar. An old Gibson. Kind of old-timey, fingerstyle guitar versions. And then I ended up, two months later, going into [the studio] with Kevin O'Donnell, the drummer [on Eggs], and doing this raucous version of it. I had somewhat of a luxury of time where I could record a version and listen to it for two months, and if it still excites me and I feel like I captured something honest, then I keep it.
AVC: Did you have a conscious direction you wanted the music to go, or do you let things evolve as they will and just go with what seems right?
AB: A little bit of both. I have a know-it-when-you-hear-it approach to things, and I know so much what I don't want to hear, so a lot of stuff ends up on the cutting-room floor. But going into this record, I did have a conscious desire to really stretch out some of the melodies and vocalize, instead of having sort of a dense rambling of lyrics. To stretch things out but not have it feel sleepy. So there's a longer arc to a lot of phrases—"Dark Matter" or "Armchair Apocrypha" are probably the best examples of that. Trying to create a beam of sound with your voice, that was a conscious goal.
AVC: When The A.V. Club interviewed you about a year ago, you were just beginning to work on the songs that ended up on Armchair Apocrypha. You mentioned that you'd started working on a song about the ancient Scythians, which became "Scythian Empires," and said that it didn't really follow your usual songwriting process—you had been reading a history book and were looking for a way to getting a song idea from left field. How did the song evolve after that?
AB: I started the first half of it when I was on this long, grueling tour through France, and not feeling particularly optimistic. Like to the point where it was humorous to me how shitty things were and how shitty I felt. [Quotes opening line of the song:] "Five-day forecast brings black-tar rains and hellfire." Usually, I'll take some feeling I have and amplify it a little, to the point where it's potentially funny. And then, the music that I write is often not necessarily full of doom and gloom. You'll notice in most of the darkest songs, the music is actually pretty peaceful and lulling. But we were driving all over Normandy at the time, and I was thinking about how much the earth had been trod upon. You know the history. The earth almost looks like it's packed down and dense from so many feet treading over it. And I guess then the song leaps back in time to the Russian steppes.
A lot of [my] songs have a big leap, like there's two strains going on. In this case, it's my current state of mind, and then the mind completely wanders to a whole different universe, and I see how one might have something to say about the other. I was imagining this real-estate agent out on the Russian steppes. [Quoting lyrics:] "Offering views of exiting empires, such breathtaking views of Scythian empires." I've always been fascinated by these obscure corners of history. I sit there and look at maps of the ancient world, where there's so many of these fantastical names, tribes that you know nothing about. The Visigoths, the Gauls. And of course, the Huns. And they're always at the edges of the empires—they're shown as an arrow piercing into this empire. When I was in eighth grade, I got particularly fascinated by the Scythian empire, because they were a little bit lesser-known. And that became my thing. My identity in eighth grade was connected to the Scythians. So I resurrected them through this song.
AVC: There's something about being in Europe that can bring this sweep of history home to an American.
AB: Something definitely sparks the imagination, but there's also something that feels very confined about it, because so much has already happened. So much blood and bones and earth around you, but all these paths have been trod over and over and over again. I get mixed feelings about that. The romance of it is not so much there anymore. I get fascinated by the history, but I also can't wait to get back to where everything has already been figured out for you.
AVC: One thing that seemed to keep coming up in the new songs was an ongoing theme of the wonder of being alive, the strangeness of it, and on "Fiery Crash," the fragility of it.
AB: That's not so much a conscious theme. I would say there's more of a desperate attempt to connect to something that isn't matter-of-fact. Spending so much time in airports and being bombarded with facts and people and people's faces and people's lives, and just being overwhelmed. When you travel, you just see more human faces, and you think, "What's their life like?" And then you see another face. How often can you do that? Sometimes I just think we're not meant to fly halfway around the world in a day. That some kind of mutation is going to happen. Something metaphysical has got to happen. There's definitely a theme on this record of desperation, I think—of trying to hold onto any evidence that we're still alive. I think life is a wondrous thing. I'm happy to try pretty hard.
AVC: The mood on the record doesn't sound desperate, though.
AB: No. Mostly, you're right. I write a lot more when I'm happy, because you're hopeful, you're motivated. The idea of writing songs because you're depressed and you need to communicate it somehow, that isn't really true for me. And a lot of the melodies that I hear these days—I used to write a lot more songs in minor keys, but minor keys are very limited. They can only be that one thing, whereas major keys have a lot more possibilities. I discovered that last summer; I had this idea that I'd bring a tape machine out to my barn and I would record one of these sort of static, ambient loops for every key that's in a scale. I did major and minor keys, because then I was going to make this master instrument where I could press a key and play that loop, if that makes any sense. And the interesting thing was, all the minor keys sounded the same—they just sounded like boring organ chords. Whereas all the major keys had a lot more nuance. But I've always felt that dark lyrics with dark music is pretty useless. Maybe that's a strong statement—not useless, but for me, it's just boring. There's no chance for us to get a perspective.
AVC: Are the ambient barn recordings part of the last song on Armchair, "Yawny At The Apocalypse," which begins with birdsong?
AB: No, but that's something like that. I did that when I was in the studio. It was one of those situations where you don't know you're being recorded. You're just messing around. It sounded nice, so I got attached to it. No, but some of that stuff from those summer barn tapes did end up on Fingerlings 3. And I still listen to those tapes all the time, because immediately I feel like I'm back in that space again. You can feel all the corners of the barn. The sound is like echolocation. And you can also feel what's outside the barn; the birds, the crickets, all that stuff.
AVC: It's sort of like one of those meditation CDs you can get, except it's custom-made.
AB: Exactly. It does have a calming effect, for sure.
AVC: You've mentioned in past interviews that you like to have a collaborator to help focus your ideas when you're working in the studio. Now that you've been working with Martin Dosh for more than a year and have recorded an entire album with him, how has your musical relationship developed?
AB: We still have this feeling that we haven't even scratched the surface of what we could do. Live, there's more stretching out and experimenting. It's a good feeling to know that we still have a lot of things we could make together. It's like, "Whoa, that's never happened before." And he's introduced me to the possibility of a different approach, whereas in the last four or five years, I've been pretty much enjoying total control. On the new record, "Simple X" is an example of a completely different process.
AVC: Because that was originally one of Martin's songs, "Simple Exercises" from Pure Trash.
AB: He would play that when he was opening for me. I was waiting to go onstage, and I'd be singing to myself backstage over that tune. That kind of division of labor is pretty foreign to me, but it was pretty satisfying to just go intuitively reflect: "What does this song want to happen?" And to just write a word for every keystroke. While we were in the studio in Minneapolis, I would get up and have breakfast at a café and write a few lines, and it was kind of my regimen, I'd write another couple lines for "Simple X." I guess that the song is a bit about breakfast, or that period of the day, being a possible key to world peace. [Laughs.]
AVC: How important is it to keep the live songs similar to what they sound like in the studio? Do you run the risk that the audience won't follow you when you're experimenting?
AB: It brings out people's expectations in your audience, for sure. Especially in Europe, younger kids come to the show [who] have had Eggs for a while, and compared to the record, the show is much more of an anything-goes—sometimes a shambles, but hopefully something cool is happening different from the night before. And there's been a few kids who come up to me [and ask], "Is this really how it is?" Seemingly disappointed. But for all those people, there are a lot who appreciate the fact that we're taking risks, and not just plugging into the same songs. I'm dealing with that right now. It's just depressing to think that I always have to recreate the record we made in the studio. I got over that years ago. It comes up every time you're about to go on tour.
We've never had anyone care enough to call anything a single, [but] "Heretics" suddenly is turning into one. It's a guitar-heavy song, and if I were just solo like I was in the last couple of years, I would just completely rewrite it. I've always said to myself, "It's just a song with chords. You can do anything with it. And as long as you make it musical, no one should be able to argue." A song like "Heretics" is just such a rockin' pop ditty, you know, and my inclination is to want to completely deconstruct it before we go on the road. So there's a healthy tension there between the structure of a three-and-a-half-minute, carefully crafted song and being able to stretch out.
AVC: You've mentioned before that you didn't think you would ever want to play in a standard, guitar-bass-drums-singer kind of rock band, and yet you're kind of evolving your own version of it that fits your sensibility. It's interesting to see how you're doing it.
AB: I don't know how I'm doing it yet. [Laughs.] I'm still trying to figure that out, but we've had some good shows together, and I know it's going to work out. It's just a slippery slope, once you start approaching that traditional interpretation. It's like, "Do I need to be picking up the violin and guitar, and tossing the violin down in the middle of a song, doing all this crazy shit I was doing with the solo show? The song is just a song, just let it be the pop song that it is." But we started doing "Tables And Chairs" as a band in a completely different approach than I had been doing in the last couple years solo. It feels good in different ways.
AVC: You also appeared recently on the Nickelodeon kids' program Jack's Big Music Show as a character named Dr. Stringz.
AB: It was a blast. It's a really smart show Nickelodeon does. It has the guy who used to be Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. He's one of the puppeteers, and he helps produce the show. They had this character they wanted me to play, and a song that I had to rewrite in my own style. I'm this character that appears after Jack has broken his friend's dulcimer, and I'm called upon to come fix his broken dulcimer with some "string zing." I wrote this sort of jug-band tune. [Sings.] "I'm so pleased to meet you, I'm the one they call Dr. Stringz, I fix and refurbish and pretty much care for anything that has strings." And magical fairy-dust comes out of the violin, and I fix this dulcimer. It was fun. I wore a lot of makeup and a bowler hat, and a checkered tuxedo.
AVC: Your tour is going to have an environmental aspect; the bus will be fueled by bio-diesel, for instance.
AB: I've been on bus tours before, and touring in general, but especially bus tours can be incredibly wasteful. This is the first time I've been able to afford to tour on a bus, and I wanted to do it in a way where I could feel mostly okay about it. There's this group called Reverb, which helps set up how to do this… It's just like, you go through hundreds of water bottles in a week on tour, and these buses give off fumes just to keep the power on. It's just incredibly wasteful, so we just do everything we can to try to make it a little more friendly.