Andrew Bird Breaks It Himself

Published March 5, 2012

ABOVE: ANDREW BIRD

“There’s lots of room for me to play around on my instruments,” says Andrew Bird of his brand-new, 10th album, Break It Yourself. For anyone who doesn’t know, Andrew Bird is perhaps the most famous violin player (he is also a singer-songwriter, guitar player and whistler, but there are too many these multi-instrument musicians to try and qualify those categories) in indie music. Bird began with a self-released album, Music of Hair (1996), after graduating from Northwestern University with a BA in violin performance. In the past 16 years, Bird has played concerts in Carnegie Hall, recorded with New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz band, and written his first film soundtrack for 2010’s Norman.

Interview caught up with Bird before he took off for his European tour. Topics ranged from why Bird thinks this might be his best album yet, to personal philosophies and the role of the violin in indie music.

EMMA BROWN: Hi, Andrew. Whereabouts are you?

ANDREW BIRD: I’m in New York City. I was just in London.

BROWN: Yes, I heard you recently performed on a riverboat on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall—how did that come about?

BIRD: Yeah, they asked me about a month or two ago and I thought that sounded wildly impractical and awesome, so I said “Sure.” It was about as cool as it promised to be. The interior of the boat had this sort of Heart of Darkness theme, so there were all these maps of the Congo River. It was pretty immaculately curated and put together. Then you had this panoramic view of the Thames and London. I just think it’s really cool that such a reckless idea could make it to fruition like that.

BROWN: How many people were in the boat when you were playing?

BIRD: Not that many; it’s pretty small, so it was just the crew filming and recording—maybe four other people. I had no reassurance that anyone was listening, which was a little awkward. When it comes to addressing the public it was probably a little weird, [but] the whole thing was pretty fun.

BROWN: You’re going on tour soon.

BIRD: Yes, going back over [to Europe] for when the record comes out. I have another two weeks where I am in control of my circumstances, and then I have to totally let go.

BROWN: How do you prepare to go on tour—or do you just try and relax?

BIRD: Right now is kind of the weirdest time because I’m having to explain myself all day to journalists, and then I don’t perform, so there’s no release, just a lot of self-consciousness. Then what do you do with that at the end of the day? How do you release your brain from talking about yourself all day? I’m just trying to get my body in shape so that I can handle it. It’s a very physically demanding thing. I’ve been doing it for 16 years, so I know what I’m going into now. I’m trying to stay calm and not panic.

BROWN: Are you received differently in Europe than in the US?

BIRD: Well, I’ve done much more touring in the US and I have a larger audience in the US. I prefer to stay domestic. My wanderlust has been pretty well satisfied. But Europe is coming along; I would say it’s 60/40 US to Europe as far as audiences go. After going to England maybe a dozen times, there’s finally a good following. It’s been a little hard going over there. There’s been this perception that Europeans still hold on to, that they discover the real talented ones in American culture and give them proper credit and that’s not true anymore—it used to be. A lot of jazz musicians would get respect in Europe.

BROWN: But didn’t that have a lot to do with racial prejudices and segregation in the US? Or are you talking about more recently?

BIRD: Perhaps. I think jazz was just seeking respect and validity because a lot of people didn’t believe it was a viable art form, and then they got a lot of attention in Europe. A lot of bands that can’t catch flies in the US have these followings in Europe, [but] it’s less and less the case. American audiences are way more sophisticated and adventurous than anyone thinks that they are.

BROWN: Were people apprehensive of you when you first started out because you were playing the violin outside of its traditional setting? Were people prejudiced about the validity of a violin in indie folk-rock?

BIRD: It was irritating, because people would see the violin and think that it’s a band with a violin in it, as opposed to the thing that the whole band is built around. Usually bands with violins—it’s this little, poorly amplified looking kind of futile on stage, and that’s not the way that my music is put together. For a while I’d  get frustrated, I’d get marginalized because of the violin whereas if I played the guitar, I’d be considered a songwriter, but with my violin I’m something else. Back when I was playing in the punk-rock or post-rock scene in Chicago, I felt like [the scene] perceived me as being too schooled. In reality, they probably didn’t care one way or another, [laughs] but that was my complex when I was 23 coming out of conservatory. I was worried that I had too much technique.

BROWN: Can you tell me a little bit about your state of mind when you were writing and recording this album, Break It Yourself?

BIRD: My state of mind when recording the album was fairly relaxed for me. Usually I’m a mess when I’m in the studio, just a bundle of nerves, but this was more of a social [thing]. We recorded in my barn and I brought the band down from Minneapolis and we had a friend cooking for us and it was kind of a glorified rehearsal/jam session/let’s hang out for a week, and out of that came a record. I’ve never quite done it in such an easygoing way, it was just all live performance and us kind of feeling our way through the songs. I think it might be my favorite record that I’ve ever made. I think they’re some really great moments of  four people playing together and improvising, and there are some wild solos. The songs are grounded, but the playing is kind of wild. I think that’s a nice contrast. Before, I would have improvised until I found a melody, then I would distill that melody down to a theme and that would become the theme that I play in the song. My state of mind while writing it? I just took more time, took more time off. Lived a lot between the last two records. It’s about the most unforced record I’ve ever made.

BROWN: In the song “Sifters,” there are the lines “What if we hadn’t been born at the same time? / What if you were 75 and I was nine?”  Do you believe in soulmates?

BIRD: I actually don’t believe that, and I also don’t believe that “everything happens for a reason,” which is in a similar category of world-views. I don’t know if the song is saying that in that line. I wrote that song with a friend of mine, Sharon, it’s the one song that’s a co-writing, and it’s from a play that she wrote, so that is her voice, more or less. I think it’s talking about things being out of time, I think she’s saying that time has little to do with it. But no one’s ever asked me about that song yet.

BROWN: It was in the film Norman, how did you get involved in writing for a film?

BIRD: I’ve been approached half-a-dozen times to do soundtracks, and this is the first film that was actually good, it’s very good. I felt like it was time to try it, I think I’m well equipped to do one and I just wanted to see if I could and what the process felt like. It was cool, I just had the monitor in the studio with me and played live to the scene.

BROWN: Would you do it again?

BIRD: Norman is a very up-close, personal, character drama and I’d like to do something more zoomed out, a little more pastoral, some sweeping epic. I’d like to try something different.

BROWN: Is there anything in particular on this album that you’re excited about?

BIRD: I finally wrote a song that’s both a good single and a blast to play, and something always magical happens when we play it, it’s “Eyeoneye.” Something happens three-quarters of the way through that song, every time we do it live, it goes bigger than us. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. You always want the song that you’re going to be expected to play a lot to be like that. It’s not so scripted as Noble Peace was, so I think it’s going to be a blast to play.

BROWN: Do you generally play your songs live to an audience before you record them on an album?

BIRD: Yeah. Sometimes before they’re finished being written. There’s kind of this unequaled thrill of playing a half-finished song, it’s kind of sense of slight embarrassment; like you’re blushing. I like doing that. I did that with “Eyeoneye” and it was almost a curse on the song for a while; I debuted it when it was half-finished in  a very public way.  But the first splurge of creativity is kind of free, and the last 30 percent is painstakingly hard work, but it’s good to light a fire and make it public and create that expectation. It’s become part of the writing process, really, a way to ask the audience what they think, how they think it’s going. I can’t write songs in a vacuum.

BROWN: Do you feel like you have a good dialogue with your audience?

BIRD: Yeah. I’ve literally opened it up to suggestions and it’s totally chaotic and kind of a bad idea. [laughs] You don’t need the actual feedback to get a sense. When you’re showing a song for the first time, people can feel that newness.

BREAK IT YOURSELF IS OUT TODAY.