Andrew Bird talks about cooking, life’s energy and the language of music
When Andrew Bird was 4 years old, he began his classical music training via the Suzuki method, which emphasizes starting at a young age, creating a positive environment and learning increasingly complex pieces by ear. As a young man, he became determined to establish himself as a professional musician. After stints as a member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and with his own band, Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, the multi-instrumentalist made his fame performing solo, using loop-station effects to build mini-symphonies from layers of violin, guitar, glockenspiel, vocals and whistling.
Bird was featured in the online lecture series Ted Talks, and writes semiregular posts about songwriting for The New York Times’ Measure for Measure blog. In 2012, he revisited the band format with a pair of albums recorded live in the studio with a group of musicians: Break it Yourself and Hands of Glory.
In anticipation of his upcoming solo performance at Laxson Auditorium, the CN&R spoke by phone with a soft-spoken and introspective Bird.
CN&R: What can you tell me about your early days practicing the Suzuki method?
Bird: It was probably my most important formative experience; it made me the musician I am. I think if I hadn’t done Suzuki, I would either not be a musician or I wouldn’t be as malleable as I am. The key is starting really young … and learning music as a language, not reading music. I didn’t read music at all until I was 14 or 15.
How does that background help your music now?
When I made the leap out of classical music, to whatever it was—jazz improvisation, more syncopated or polyrhythmic music, or playing with drummers—all of that stuff wasn’t a great leap for me. I could pick up other musical languages almost immediately. If I hear it in my head, I can play it.
When did you decide to pursue music as a profession?
When life starts to really suck for you at 15 or 16. At least it feels like everyone’s against you and nothing’s going well. I said, “Well, I’m pretty decent at [playing music]; it’s something to feel good about.” That’s when I threw myself into it. I said, “I’m going to become the best damn violin player I can.” I started practicing many hours a day, and around that same time I got interested in nonclassical stuff, too. At the time, like a lot of teenagers, I was getting this sort of romantic idea of being an artist or a poet.
There’s a lot to keep track of during your solo performances—all the looping and switching instruments. Are you good at multitasking outside of music?
No, I’m the opposite of methodical. If I’m cooking, I’m always forgetting to add something, and adding it at the last minute and just hoping for the best, which is how it really is on stage. I enjoy the seat-of-the-pants aspect to it. I make tons of mistakes, but you may or may not know it. It’s a dangerous thing, and it’s all subject to human error.
When you go from playing solo to performing with a band, is it a challenge to convey your ideas?
Rehearsing with a band can be like teaching—I get all wound up, because you’re trying to will people into playing what you think they should be playing. That’s just a recipe for frustration. I start with a loop I’ve stumbled on after messing around for months. Sometimes, that turns into the song and we record it. Sometimes we just drop it. But [the other band members] just start filling in the gaps.
The song that speaks to me on Break it Yourself is “Give it Away.” What’s it about?
It’s questioning whether love or life energy—whatever we have to give other people—is a finite resource. Does it run out? If you’re giving away that thing every night during a performance, what is it like to hit the bottom of the fuel tank? Looking at it as a science project, what it comes down to is all of your adrenal glands squeezing themselves dry, night after night. I think that does something to your chemicals, your serotonin levels. It’s not good.