Andrew Bird: I'm never going to use Twitter
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Andrew Bird doesn't like to call himself a writer. With the classic humility of a Midwesterner, he says, "It's just something that happens when you get up in the morning. It's not a big deal." The maestro -- who has a huge resume of artist friends including Neko Case, My Morning Jacket, and Ani DiFranco -- tries to downplay it, but it's difficult to keep that kind of talent hidden. With his new album, Hands of Glory, the singer has released a record that is fascinating in its depth, layering, and rhythm.
Gimme Noise spoke with the violinist before his Minneapolis show and just days after his album release, which coincided with his Late Show With David Letterman performance that took place during Hurricane Sandy, on the new music and his Minneapolis connections.
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Andrew Bird at First Avenue, 12/02/10
Gimme Noise: You recently released a new album. Do you ever pay attention to sales and how your albums do? Andrew Bird: Not really. I don't lose sleep over it. GN: Along with this album, did you release a reinterpretation of Break It Yourself? AB: Yes, the album has one song that's reimagined, which is "Orpheo Looks Back." Every time I make a record, the version on the record is only one way of how things could have gone. The version on the record is vastly different in character.GN: Did you record at your farm in Illinois?
AB: We did half of it there at the end of the tour in August, and we did the other half in Louisville in a church in July.
GN: Do you record as a live band, or is each instrument recorded separately?
AB: It's definitely a live band sound. That's what we did for Break It Yourself. We use as few microphones as possible -- sometimes it's just one microphone.
GN: Why did you want to use that method for recording?
AB: One of my first records was recorded like that. We started doing it live onstage where we just used one microphone. There's something about it that makes a lot of sense musically, because you're all having to tune into the way you sound because of where you're standing and not so much by the multiple sounds. I think you sing better with no monitors. I like to force limitations on us -- at least our music.
GN: Can you elaborate a little more on how you force these limitations?
AB: With a full band, the setup gets quite complex. There's probably over twenty different channels. There's a microphone or a direct line. The music that you're making is being translated into an electronic signal that goes through a PA that goes through a monitor back at you. It leaves you with a disconnect musically. When you go on one microphone, there's one field of range with that microphone, and it translates back the sound in the air right in the microphone into a single line into the audience. There's no monitors; there's no disconnect. You can't hear yourself very well because there are no monitors, but that causes us to sing better, sing stronger, and to play better. It's a very unforgiving way to do it, but it also has a campfire feel to it where you're really close to each other. We're connected.
GN: In writing for this album, do you keep your audience in mind, or do you write whatever comes to you?
AB: Mainly the latter. Mostly what bubbles up from my cumulative experiences, but when certain current events force me to think about it, I keep that in mind. Like we just did Letterman on Tuesday night in New York, and you have to think about all of those people there that have no power. If they're watching this, if they're freaked out, what they might take away from the song, so I definitely chose a song that was comforting. I had another song chosen that was talking about droughts and floods, and people can take that the wrong way. They can take it as negative or being insensitive, so in terms like that, you definitely think about your audience. Not when I'm writing, though. I write whatever I feel like writing, then I can decide what to play.
GN: Would you say you write without limitations?
AB: I don't even like to think of myself as a writer. It's like people who call themselves artists all of the time. To be so self-aware in that way, it's not a good thing. I like to think that writing is just a part of being alive. It's just something that happens when you get up in the morning. It's not a big deal.
GN: What was it like playing for an empty theater on Letterman?
AB: It was fine because the Paul Schaffer band was paying attention to what we were doing, and they were all very supportive. There was at least 25 people there listening.
GN: How did you come to working with Tift Merritt?
AB: We're neighbors. I don't know if it would have happened if we weren't down the street from each other. She lives in SoHo, and I'm in the West Village, so we're five blocks from each other. I've been aware of her and always liked her spirit and music, so we actually got together five or six months ago with that trio that was on Letterman. We were talking about getting a low-key local gig just to play covers. We were like, "Oh, we're starting a little band here," and then the next time we got together was for Letterman. That was our low-key gig, was on Letterman. (laughs) It was a last minute thing, because I called her, and she was in Manhattan without power. Alan was in Brooklyn and had to walk over the bridge with his bass in the rain. It was a dramatic thing.
GN: How are you guys doing out there on the East Coast?
AB: We're fine. Our apartment doesn't have power, but we're on the Upper East Side, and it's fairly normal. You have to go to the grocery store earlier, because they sell out of milk and supplies.
GN: You have a lot of imagery in your lyrics. Is it ever difficult to write without going over the top?
AB: I have a gauge. There's certain things that you want to say, but to say them matter-of-factly can by inelegant. There's certain words you won't use because they don't sound pretty, and they just hit the floor like a wet sponge, so I search for something else. (pauses) What was I gonna say? (pauses) But there again, there's a line you cross where if something can be so, not cheesy, but a bit raw, or embarrassing, then you're like, "I wonder if that's actually a good sign?" If you're blushing a little bit when you're singing that line, it means you're getting something that people can relate to. I think people can relate to being awkward, and that line of whether you want to share this or not is kind of an interesting line to ride.
GN: You recently released a video for "Three White Horses." How important is it to you to have content that is solely music?
AB: I've always been reluctant to do music videos. There's not that many bands that don't not do music videos. Have you ever seen a Wilco video? They look at it and think, "We just look like posers if we try to do a video," you know what I mean? I'm aware of that, maybe it's a Midwestern thing. Maybe I'm selling myself short by doing that, trying to do something viral. The labels are always saying, "You gotta so something quirky and funny, and it'll go viral. That's the key to our marketing." I'm like, "Come on, dudes. That's not what this is about." You gotta do something that comes naturally. The "Three White Horses" video is one of the first videos that I'm pretty satisfied with.
GN: It was beautifully done. I really liked it, too.
AB: Yeah, because it doesn't distract from the music, it just underscores it. It's not trying to be high-concept; it's just performing. A lot of my videos are not lip-synched, they're actual performances. It doesn't always make you come across as larger-than-life, which a lot of bands want to come across as. My videos have always been a bit scrappy, and that's fine.
GN: In the world that we live in, people require constant content from their favorite artists. Do you feel it's difficult for you to share parts of your life via social media like Twitter?
AB: I don't even know how to use Twitter, but the content thing is worrisome in that you're expected to provide to for-profit companies with free content in order to promote your music. That's a slippery slope, I think. As far as valuing everything creative, everything you do should have a weight and value to it. Some companies do step up and take responsibility, like Pitchfork will do the work. They won't expect you to just always provide them with free content. They'll either do it themselves, or people are getting paid or making a living, and that's fine. I'm not equipped to process so much information. I'm a pretty private person. I'm never gonna touch Twitter.
GN: It's good that you set your limits, and you know exactly what you want. You also released your album with some pencils along with a download code. Did you come up with that idea?
AB: Oh. (embarrassed laugh) You know, a lot of bands do that. It's for retail. You gotta give the independent stores a little something extra to entice people to get out of the house and out to a record store. Not that a couple of pencils are gonna get people our of their house. (laughs) No, that was not my idea, but I accepted it. That's just how retail works.
GN: It always interests me what kind of unique ideas artists come up with to market their merch. You have a lot of Minneapolis connections with Jeremy [Yvlisaker] and Martin [Dosh]. How did you meet them, and how did you come to choosing those two to work with you?
AB: I met Dosh first in 2004, and I had been solo for a while. I was looking for someone who really got what I was trying to do. We were a duo for a couple of years doing the looping, and he's been with me for a long time. He got on board when things were starting to take off.
Jeremy came on because we were playing these festivals, and we kept getting drowned out by the bass of other bands, so Jeremy played bass at first. We became a trio, and then he's known for guitar, so he switched to guitar. Mike Lewis played bass for us, but now he plays in Bon Iver, so we have Alan Hampton.
I feel like a lot of musicians in Minneapolis are very independent and making more interesting music that doesn't sound like anything else. If you go to New York or LA, there's a lot of extremely competent session players. Places like Chicago and Minneapolis have more creative, bizarre players that wouldn't fit in a session band. A lot of the people in the Twin Cities are making music for the right reasons. Martin and Jeremy they get it. They realize it's pretty great to be able to play for so many people. They don't let that opportunity slide.
GN: What can we expect to see at your show in Minneapolis?
AB: There's a lot of variety. We never do a couple of songs that are cut from the same cloth. I'll start off solo, and you can hear all of the intricacies of the solo looping world. Then we'll go into full band and a big sound, then we'll strip it all back into the old time thing, then we'll ramp it back up to a big sound. No one's ever lulled into being like, "Gosh, he plays the same song over and over again." That doesn't happen. There's just a lot going on. You can either close your eyes and let it wash over you, or you can pay attention to all the tricky things we're doing.
Andrew Bird will perform at the State Theatre on Monday, December 17, 2012 with Fat Kid Wednesdays.
AA, $32.50-$40.00, 8 pm
Purchase tickets here.
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