by Luke Baumgarten & r & From what seemed to be a coffeeshop in Nashville, Andrew Bird gave me (an initially furtive) look into his songwriting processes.
What's the Suzuki Method? I mean, exactly, It seems vaguely Orwellian... & r & The Suzuki Method is kind of a pre-fab method of learning the violin and other instruments. Where they start kids -- it's almost like putting headphones on the mother's stomach when the kids in the womb -- It starts you really young, when you're still learning language and the idea is that you kinda form the same neural pathways. It's all kinda fun games. It's all oral. Even though it's classical music, it's more like a folk tradition really. So I started when I was four and, I guess it worked on me. By the time I was eight I could play pretty well. I was just, you know, kind of tricked into learning the violin.
So it's prefab, but it's also pretty loose and intuitive. It obviously helped you technically, but did it help shape you also as an artist? & r & I learned the instrument in an intuitive way, rather than methodical. Everything is kinda mapped out. My ear is connected to what I play. I think if I would have started a little later, on a little bit more strict, methodical route, where you learn from reading sheet music and theory, I would have turned out different for sure. I probably wouldn't have stuck with it anyway.
But anyway, so I took to non-classical music pretty quickly because I could just hear something and say, some inflection off the violin, and be able to immediately process it without having to transcribe it or anything. So yeah, it's very methodical and organized at the same time, and it involves tons of repetition, and that's what kids respond to.
So going with the non-classical music. I don't want to spend too much time on this but I read a lot about swing and the Squirrel Nut Zippers like it's some huge burden you've had to shed. Is that how you feel about it? & r & I'd like to just avoid the subject altogether ...
Alright, that's fine ... & r & Not that it's that big a deal really. But it was so popular and so faddish. And it is kind of a burden because if you hear a promoter say, 'hey, this is the guy who played fiddle with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, he's playing tonight.' What are you going to think about the music that you're going to go to see?
It seems like a catch-22, you can't promote your old work, especially if you're trying to do something new. & r & It puts you in a position where your instinct is to dismiss it. But the reality is I had a great time playing that music, I just don't play it anymore. That's not the kind of music I'm presenting anymore.
Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire and your solo work sound way different. But between Swimming Hour [the last Bowl of Fire album] and Weather Systems [the first solo album] isn't a very long span of time, but they're two drastically different albums. Was that [solo aesthetic] something you'd been kicking around for a while? & r & I think I came back around to some more personal, experimental stuff I was into before the whole Zippers thing happened. During that time, I was very enchanted by the idea of really packing a punch and intertaining the audience at any cost. Coming from a classical conservatory world that was really appealing. Where there seems to be more of a disdain for the audience, or a lack of respect. The coolest thing about playing with the Zippers is that they thought of themselves as entertainers, and they felt pretty good about that. And that seemed pretty cool to me. But I felt it was time to get back to ... a little more, I guess what I would consider more self-indulgent ... but that's not really the right way to put it. With Weather Systems I totally changed my environment, living out in the country. I finally had time to let the songs breathe a little more. Before that record the songs were a little more insistent and determinedly packaged songs.
Weather Systems seems a little more meandering ... & r & Yeah, I've been more interested in minimalism, textures and stuff like that. And also I'm just taking over control of the whole song. Instead of just some stylistic references, I'm writing the whole song. That's the major difference there I think.
It seems to me like [the second and latest album, Mysterious Production of] Eggs and Weather Systems is a pretty big move as well, at least lyrically. But I read at least some of the songs were written concurrently? & r & Yeah, but I kind of appropriated songs to Weather Systems that I thought were more dreamy and more of a sort of gaseous state. Whereas I knew I wanted Eggs to be a punchier record with a tighter rhythm section. The way I look at it is that every song on Eggs could be on Weather Systems if it was spread out, deconstructed and unfolded. And there're so many themes in every song. I feel like I could have diffused them...
Over like a couple albums? & r & Right. Each song in Eggs is kind of like its own universe.
It does seem a lot more dense, in that sense. And it took you a lot longer to complete too right? You scrapped it several times? & r & Yeah, I started it before Weather Systems and did Weather Systems to kind of take the pressure off what I was putting on myself for Eggs. Those songs have been in the works for years & quot;Skin Is, My & quot; is one of the first songs I wrote. I think I was 19 when those lyrics started coming to me. It's been through, you know, 50 different rewrites since then.
So were the ideas you were working with just so much harder, or creating these little universes, I guess, you'd have to make every word count in such a way ... & r & Making the songs excite me after all these years of laboring over them. Kinda hard, once you get them down, to be turned on by them any more. You don't want to just hear what's in your head, that's boring. Everytime you listen to your record, you want to be like, 'wow, this cool thing happened,' or whatever, you know?
Is that why you do so much sampling and looping at your live shows? Kind of like recreating your songs each time you play them? & r & The live performance is -- you can kind of see how the song is put together, due to the nature of the looping, but also it's an incredibly malleable and intuitive process too. In order to keep myself inspired on the road, there's quite a bit of messing with what happens between the start and the end of the song.
Before I launch in to anything too abstract and presumptuous -- [Andrew gets interrupted by some sort of waiter or barrista] Hold on a sec [Hardball-style cross-talk] okay go ahead.
I want to talk about your lyrics, but before I do -- so as not to sound like an asshole -- what are the big things people get wrong about you and your work? & r & Let's see. Well, you know, not many -- I'm surprised at how few times I'm asked about the actual songs, you know, the content. Sometimes they're -- not dismissed -- but referred to as being just whimsical. Or there's this one here in Nashville, where they said 'looks like he's got his thesaurus out.' It wasn't negative per se, but it was -- often times the lyrics are just kind of ... I'd have a lot more interesting interviews if I was asked about the actual songs.
I've read interviews where you've said something to the effect of your lyrics are mainly just strings of interesting sounding words. & r & That's funny because I tend to marginalize them in the way I talk about them, just because I don't want to create too much of a -- it's one of the more elusive parts of what I'm doing. One of the more mysterious parts and so my attitude towards it is to say, & quot;yeah, it's just like doing crossword puzzles or word games, you know. But fact is -- that may be true -- but whatever you're thinking about or whatever is important to you will tend to surface.
When you say 'elusive' do you mean elusive to you? Like you can't find the words to talk about it? & r & Words are really tricky. I mean, melodies come to me every hour of the day, whether I try or not. Words are so tricky because it's hard to have faith [in their meanings] anymore. So that's why I jump upon any words that are either out of use or can somehow be given new meaning. Such as 'sovay'. I'll jump on a word like that, that I don't know what it means, because then I can give it some meaning. And then suddenly it's got way more weight than any word that's in common usuage or conversation. So I still, you know, listen to old folk music for those archaic phrases, like 'what is he talking about?' That's why Charlie Patton is so fascinating, that's why old child? ballads are so fascinating. Because it's what you don't understand. So yeah, but I don't want to talk about words because I don't want to take myself too seriously.
You said -- and this might have been in the same article -- that the words just kind of fit themselves into the nooks of the melody. But then, it seems to me, especially listening to Eggs, like there are some crazy ass ideas at play here. So, do you have the ideas, then the music, then the words, or, what's the sequence usually? & r & Usually the melody comes first. Then I wait until I get into a certain state of mind where things don't make too much sense. That's when words start to come. There are other processes at work, too. Like I'll challenge myself. You need a project, you need a challenge sometimes, to write a song. To get you off your ass, to get you going on some words. So I'll tell myself, 'alright, you've gotta work Greek Cypriots into a song [laughs], or dark matter or something like that. Usually it's basically not in the world of things that make sense until the last 20-30% of the process. Then you've got to like -- 'somehow I accidentally happened upon something that could make sense' -- and then you gotta really struggle with that.
So that's the really difficult part then? & r & That's what takes forever. Then it's a bit of forcing a -- what's the expression -- square peg into a round hole. So there's a little bit of that involved. But yeah, I'll walk around with a melody in my head and just start speaking in tongues [laughs]
Eggs especially seems so densely allegorical. Just so much allegorical speech at play. Does that come from these challenges you give yourself -- or is it even meant as allegory at all? & r & Yeah, I mean. That's where I say I'm just trying to amuse myself. That's why palindromes keep showing up. It's really important that I amuse myself and trust that the meaning will reveal itself later. I feel like that's the disadvantage of the confessional singer songwriter. Everyone uses metaphors and whatnot, but I don't really think, 'Ok, this is how I feel, and I'm going to fill up a couple notebooks full of personal poetry and then play some guitar chords over the top of it.' Often times that's the process at work. And that can be valid. I just find melodies so much more interesting than words really. So I will usually bend the words to the melody. But then there's songs like Sovay and Lull that do have kind of a rambling non-melodic flow to them. And Action Adventure too. But htose are the exceptions where it's borderline -- ah, I've never said this before -- but it's borderline rapping. You know. It's more of a rhythmic approach to the words. And I've used that process as well.
You use a lot of bucolic -- like pastoral -- imagery, a lot of nature stuff. But then you -- like you said, with dark matter -- you use a lot of capitalistic jargon, science, engineering, computer programming. Rheostats. A lot of bands use those tropes, but set in opposition to one another. It seems like, in your songs they kind of intermingle. & r & Yeah.
I don't want to ascribe your art to his, but Jay Ryan's artwork does that as well. The zeroes and ones sprouting grass. Letters floating in a lake. Like these things are here regardless, they're built in. & r & That's the reason why Jay's on tour with us now. Yeah, he's promoting his book and selling his posters and ... driving the bus [laughs]. But yeah, in almost every song there's a theme of someone or some force, usually without the best intentions. Trying to quantify things that can't be quantified. And ultimately we're rooting for them to fail. Either it's a sympathetic character who can't help it. He's gotta try, but he can't do it. Or in the case of 'Banking on a Myth', where it's like vertical real estate, talking about ... what is it 'deals in commodities of the abstract sort, buys them in bulk, sells them short.' But that's the real Weather Systems song. The idea was I'm sitting on my farm on my front porch and I know that they're going to put a highway through the farm. Eminent domain. So I'm thinking where is the line drawn, with that.
Especially with that supreme court case & r & Yeah. Then as I'm thinking this, a huge weather system comes rolling through the valley and I'm thinking, 'you can't quite quantify that one.' And that's about it. They're going to try just about everything else. Emotions. Whatever else they can possibly bottle and sell, they will.
It's hard for me to find where the ironic line is drawn in your lyrics. 'Masterfade' has a lot of existential dread, but then there's the 'finger resting gently on the masterfade,' like being able to control your environment is comforting. & r & There's a couple threads running through that song. There's about three songs rolled up in one. One's about being in a relationship where one person is leading the other through this bizarre psychedelic world, like who's got control of the masterfade, you know. Squinting your eyes and letting everything fuzz out. That's one song. The other's in the chorus, about the 1s and 0s. Having moved out to the country and having bought Pro Tools at the same time and like wandering through the hills and still having 1s and 0s stuck in your head because you're trying to fucking figure out Pro Tools [laughs]. So, you know, they're pretty densely packed. Sometimes I'll be writing three songs and I'll kind of fold them all into one. I guess that's knowing that you only get to put out 12 songs every two or three years.
Just wanting to pack it all in. You could just do the Ryan Adams thing, and release 4 albums a year. & r & Yeah ... no, no [laughs]. I thought I could do that at first, but. I know what another record means to my life. So that's slowing things down quite a bit, knowing what's involved.
It seems like, if you were, you wouldn't be content with anything less than the kind of time you spent on Eggs... & r & It's a bit of me conforming to the industry schedule because, you know, realistically that someone is going to put a lot of effort into getting people to hear that record. A certain amount of human energy and money. I kind of eventually just ... I'm not sure how much that's changed my process. I used to write 25-30 songs and record 30 songs, and have to cut half of them. So now I just keep re-writing the same 12 songs over the course of 3 or 4 years. It's not a bad thing. It's just what's happened.
On the surface 'Tables and Chairs' is like this very Fight Clubby Anarchist Utopia feel, or like that Talking Heads song 'Nothing but Flowers'. Like once we get all this shit out of the way, everything will be perfect. & r & It's mostly about community. Like imagining -- and I'm still working on a theme of armchair eschatology, or the armchair apocalypse -- from the comfort of your armchair, imagining a chance to just kind of start over where people engage each other more. And of course this is knowing that an actual apocalypse would be pretty awful. So that's mostly what it's about. I've got some new songs that kind of handle that.
Are you going to play any of them at the show? & r & Yep, two, three, maybe four songs.