By Mark Guarino
If you haven’t yet heard of Andrew Bird, he offers a quick primer: “I’m the antithesis of the confessional singer-songwriter.”
Over eight years Bird developed a singular pop style that incorporates looped percussion, ghostly whistling, blurry guitars, shifting meters and a deadpan singing style that sounds both bored and bemused singing fatalistic fare like “you’re what happens when/two substances collide/and by all accounts/you really should’ve died.” After five albums (and a stint playing fiddle for hot jazz revisionists Squirrel Nut Zippers), Bird, 33, is seeing the tide turn in a big way. Audience numbers have swelled which means a transition from years playing bars to today selling out mid-size theaters (including the Riviera April 20). Last year, at dueling summer festivals Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, he was stunned to walk onstage and discover thousands, not hundreds, waiting for his first note.
“Something happened,” he said. “The audience is getting a lot younger so every show has to be all ages. And they’re thoughtful, cool kids. I’m really impressed with that.”
Armchair Apocrypha, his sixth album due March 20, runs the gamut from psychedelic pop, spacious romance and taut rockers. Released on Fat Possum, the heralded Mississippi indie label that’s home to both backwoods bluesmen like R.L. Burnside and eccentric rock acts like the Fiery Furnaces, the album defines Bird as a pop music economist with a musical vocabulary all his own. Despite their raw, unkempt edge, the songs are meticulously lined with contrasting sounds and motifs that Bird twists into an unpredictable yet accessible pop record.
“I really appreciate a record that can become part of your every day. Most artists wouldn’t admit they make music that you make dinner to,” he said. “But who are we kidding?”
The left field ambition is rooted in a childhood in Lake Bluff where Bird, a self-described music snob, preferred jazz and the exotic sounds of Indian or gypsy music over high school mope rock perennials New Order or The Cure. “(Pop music) never spoke to me,” he said. “It made me kind of sick.”
After earning a Northwestern degree in classical violin he bee-lined to rock clubs, not concert halls, where he honed a reputation as a fiddler, a whistler and a singer of esoteric songs in a hushed voice. Over time he traded his violin for a guitar and discovered, to his surprise, a fondness for writing three-minute pop songs. “It’s the most challenging thing you can do,” he said.
Not having a record collection turned out to be a good thing. With no references to recycle, songwriting became uncharted territory. Bird realized he could bring in sounds from outside the pop universe and not feel like he was doing something wrong. As someone in the midst of creating his own genre, the juxtaposition of styles and moods made him stand out from the local music scene. “I had to earn it here. It wasn’t easy,” he said.
The days of riding his bicycle around town and hanging up posters for weekend gigs is gone, replaced by a new regiment that requires, up to now, finding a tour manager, sound man and a bus. Bird admits that touring is not kind on his body. On a recent tour through France, he said he was confident death was creeping up. “Every time I sang I felt my guts were spilling out of my stomach,” he said.
Yet touting a new album with a new sound to a new audience all year long is its own reward. “I just have that need to work myself to the point of hurting myself,” he said. “It’s a form of scarification just to know you’re alive.”