Bird by Bird

Categories: Chicago Magazine

On the eve of a major release (Noble Beast, out January 20th on Fat Possum), musician-on-the-verge Andrew Bird, 35, opens up about pseudo fame, bipolar lifestyles, and what it takes to write the perfect pop song

“I think in terms of textures and colors, and so I wanted it to be very acoustic. I spent a long time looking for the right old Martin guitar to record with, and I was thinking of a particular place on my [family farm in Elizabeth, Illinois] where there’s a spring that comes from under these roots in this tree and everything’s covered in this soft furry moss and everything’s in this state of decay. Mossy, steamy—those were the sounds I heard. I knew I would have to work with Mark Nevers, who I did [the 2003 album] Weather Systems with, and he knows how to get this saturated, rich, delicate sound. We started with two acoustic guitars and live vocals and nothing else.”

“When I was young I remember playing one note, trying to make everything in the room resonate with that one note. So I think that process is not too much of a leap from the abstract visual I’m seeing. But how do you take something that abstract and turn it into music? I think by seeking out the right instruments and the right tone. With [the 2007 album] Armchair Apocrypha, I’d take whatever was at hand. I really liked this old sixties [Fender] Jaguar guitar that was sitting there, so therefore that’s all over the record. You wouldn’t think that would make much of a difference, but it had this amazing sound. Just the sound of a snare drum can affect you emotionally and be so right and so wrong at the same time.”

“For years [the violin] was such a part of my identity. It used to be so intense that I didn’t want to do it anymore. It had too much control over me, so in previous records, I had been, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll get around to playing violin eventually,’ and I’d use it to serve the song. With this record, there is a little bit more playing just for sheer joy.”

“When we first started playing larger venues, it was really hard because it threatens to create a disconnect sonically, with sound bouncing everywhere while you’re trying to stay close to your band. That took a little adjustment. But by the time we ended up in Millennium Park in September, I’d say that was just about as good as it gets for me. To be able to play to 15,000 people and still have it feel intimate. We’re not the kind of band that’s full of broad gestures and bombast, or that whips crowds up in a frenzy, but when the crowd of kids came from the lawn and rushed the stage, I allowed myself to really feel good about that.”

“‘Tenuousness’ is a series of snapshots of a year hurtling through space and being in a different city every day. The whole song gets the sense of not why is the world so chaotic, but why is the world not more chaotic than it is? How can it not spin off its axis and go floating off into the universe?

“I just wake up every morning and something gets under my skin. For ‘Anonanimal,’ one section is a total diversion within the song. It goes into a different time signature like a subplot to a song. I listen to what it wants. ‘Fitz and the Dizzyspells’ the whole time wanted to be a pop song but I can’t resist writing these tangential sections. I think writing a short pop song is a pretty noble pursuit and the simpler the better.”

“I’ve been doing this for so long—for 12, 13 years now—that it just gets increasingly more intense with more and more dates every year. It’s a very bipolar kind of way to live, whether or not you’re inclined chemically to be that way. I noticed I’ve become very neurotic about substances—what’s going to keep you going and how do you pace yourself through the day to get through that show. It can warp your mind for sure.”

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