Indie rock and folk singer-songwriter Andrew Bird makes what he calls “three-dimensional music” – a mixture of violin, guitar, and virtuoso whistling, combined with intricate looping pedals. Bird has released more than a dozen albums since starting his solo career in the early 2000s, but is also a past member of swing revival jazz band, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and his own fronted band, Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire.
Bird spoke with the Valley Advocate ahead of his Feb. 27 performance at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton about his penchant for musical whistling, his new album Echolocations: River, and his work scoring film and television projects such as the Muppets.
Chris Goudreau: Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind your new record?
Andrew Bird: It’s part of a series of four records that I’m making. I’ve already gone to the locations and recorded the source material. If I find an outdoor environment that I find acoustically unique and inspirational, then I go in and see what I kind of feedback I get from the environment and then I compose the music in the space by improvising. Then I take those field recordings back and build a record around it and film it as well. It’s all about remaining open to the kind of spaces you enter.
Chris: Have you ever played any gigs in Northampton in the past? What do you think of the area?
Andrew: I’ve played there a bunch of times. I used to play the Iron Horse. I think I’ve played the Calvin at least twice. It’s a lovely place and I’ve got a couple friends there.
Chris: I watched a TED Talk performance of your music and was amazed with your whistling. How did you start doing that? What are some tips to becoming a good whistler when it comes to music?
Andrew: I’ve been doing it since I was little and if you hung out with me for a day, you’d notice that if I’m not eating or talking, I’m whistling pretty much all the time. It’s just an unconscious thing that I do. I kind of resisted doing it onstage. I thought, ‘Why am I doing this all day and go onstage and stop whistling?’ And then it turned into a powerful way in which I make sound. I blend it with different instruments. I play violin and I sing. Those are kind of warm and mid-range. They occupy a certain space. The whistle is the glass that cuts through the wool.
Chris: Do you have any favorite albums that you’ve worked on, whether that’s with your solo career, with Bowl of Fire or Squirrel Nut Zippers?
Andrew: One of the favorite albums this year that I’ve liked listening back to is Weather Systems. That was a sort of turning point for me in how I kind of re-imagined how I made music. It was a huge effort that paid off. The Zippers records – I was 23 years old and they were in New Orleans – it was pretty wild and fun. The Hands of Glory record was fun to make because it was just scrappy and live. Some records have been absolute misery to make and just gutting experiences.
Chris: I imagine that there must have been experiences that, in the moment, must have been tortuous to go into the studio, but afterwards you might have some nostalgia years later?
Andrew: Armchair [Apocrypha] was pretty tortuous to make and a lot of them were. I don’t love being in the studio. The way that I approach recording is like a 12-day bender. I approach it like one long performance and it doesn’t ever end. I don’t sleep. I don’t eat. It’s pure obsession and I can’t sustain it for very long … That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, does it? But that’s usually how it is.
Chris: What are some of your favorite albums?
Andrew: Most of them fall between the years of 1958 to 1962. I think that was the best sounding period of recording. There’s a Lester Young record called The Jazz Giants of ‘56 that I love to this day. I never analyze it. I don’t scrutinize it. I just enjoy it. I just love the jazz and gospel from that period, the Staple Singers, it’s just perfect. I don’t know how to describe it.
Chris: You’ve been described as a one-man orchestra. For you, personally, what’s a typical performance like?
Andrew: The one-man orchestra thing is a quick, convenient way of describing it, but it’s not really accurate. I don’t seek to recreate the sound of an orchestra with the looping. My way of playing and my phrasing is just strange. It doesn’t sound like Classical players. All the technique’s there, but it’s my particular way of making music seen in a three-dimensional way or a vertical way. I play violin, which is a linear instrument. It’s really hard to play chords on a violin, but I do everything I can to make it a full vertical three-dimensional experience with the looping. It’s very intuitive and it’s not scripted. It’s improvisational.
Andrew: I thought, when I was in music school, that I wanted to be a film composer because I could play all these different styles and I was very into cinema, but then touring and songwriting kicked in. With that, I am a director. I’m conceiving of everything. It’s a lot of sitting in a dark room and hemming and hawing over a cue and trying to get the right feel and mood and getting a lot of other people’s opinions.
Chris: Are there any memorable projects that you’d like to talk about as far as film or TV?
Andrew: The Whistling Caruso from the Muppets was really enjoyable. It definitely helps when you respect the director and, in this case, their comic instincts. I have no problem going back and redoing it multiple times to get it right. In that case, it was the climax of the movie and the muppet has a hidden talent and it’s supposed to be so virtuosic; so earnest that it’s absurd and funny.