Ian Maleney talks recording, improvisation and music in and out of museums with Andrew Bird, whose new album Break It Yourself is out on March 6th. Andrew Bird doesn’t really do limitations. He casually strolls around the boundaries between genres and styles, incorporating whatever he wishes into his own very unique voice. From solo violin and vocal looping to full-on band freak outs, his virtuoso playing and innate sense of compositional detail have allowed him to develop his smart and concise haut-pop away from the glare usually focused on an artist of his stature. It’s hard to pin a spotlight on someone that doesn’t stand still. Even for a man as versatile as Bird, his new album Break It Yourself is a another surprising step, coming across as a rough and ready, band-in-a-room record. It retains all the intelligence of a typical Andrew Bird record but adds a homely glow of good friends having a good time together.
Your new album Break It Yourself is quite different from what you’ve done in the past and there’s a loose, almost countrified feel to it. Do you think there were Nashville-style influences creeping in to the songs? I’ve never really listened to country music, some of the old stuff I like. I guess it doesn’t feel like a studio record though. It’s about as loose and easy as any recording I’ve made. I think just the fact that we’re playing our instruments together in one room can lead to a more homey sound. I’d kind of been getting into The Band, which I’d never really listened to much before. That stuff definitely has a southern feel. I’ve always had a connection to southern music and I’ve always listened to gospel, early blues stuff and early jazz. I never stopped listening to that even though it’s not directly in my music any more.
What was the recording process like then for Break It Yourself? I really set it up like it was going to be a jam session where we’d hang out and eat together and give ourselves a chance to figure out the songs, not to make a record. After the first couple of days it became apparent to all of us that we were going to have a tough time beating the way it was sounding. In some cases the band didn’t even know the song half an hour before we got the take so you’re getting their first ideas, which are often the best. I think it’s nice to get that feel where we’re all feeling around in the dark a little bit and we’re all trying to figure out how to end this song. Definitely compared to records that are made in Pro-Tools on a grid where you stick one idea here, stick this idea here… They’re constructions. These are not constructions, we’re just feeling our way through it. Some songs lean to the left, to the right, speed up, slow down. I like that.
The record does sound a lot more open, there are certain moments you can really tell weren’t pre-planned. It’s quite refreshing to hear that nowadays. Yeah, for so many years the word jam was kind of a dirty word, for whatever reasons. Even when I was younger, I did a lot of it and I hated that futility of when things aren’t going anywhere. There’s not much risk of that now. I came in with a pretty strong sense of what the songs were but there wasn’t the sense that you were stepping up to the microphone and thinking ‘This is it, this is the version that is going down on the record so better be careful’. There was none of that fear which inevitable creeps in when you’re in a studio. I guess it was kind of a cultivated looseness in a way. There is a lot more soloing on it and a lot of wild playing but it’s right next to very grounded songs. When I improvise, it’s more in the school of Louis Armstrong, where he’s searching for a melody. In fact, when he’s improvising, he’s finding melodies every time he plays and that’s the way I like to think of improvising. I left it in that state rather than in a state of being found.
Break It Yourself is also the first record to be made in your own studio on your farm in Illinois. How did it feel to work there? It took me ten years to finally make a record out there because it is a hard place to bring people to and not feel like they’re trampling all over your sacred place. But these guys, I’ve been playing with them for five years now and they’re all from Minnesota and they can hang with the isolation. They’re no strangers to that. It has been a tough place to bring people in the past who are too urbanized and need to have that coffee shop down the street or that bar or girls or whatever. It takes a certain type of person to be able to hang at the barn.
One of your other major projects recently was the Sonic Arboretum, how did you come to be involved in that? I think Useless Creatures, the instrumental record that came along with Noble Beasts, showed off the instrumental side of what I do which I’ve maybe repressed in order to write good concise pop songs. I always need an outlet to play and to enjoy playing my instrument which is what I’ve doing since I was four years old. I had been keeping it kind of penned in until recently. I started doing the pieces for Useless Creatures more live and thinking I was indulging myself too much but people really responded to it. The Sonic Arboretum, besides being this sculptural, visual thing, takes the focus off of me and my persona and it puts the performing or creating on my terms, which is to make music after breakfast for a couple of hours. It’s kind of the anti-show. I come and create music and send it out to these flower-like speakers in a room. Eventually I would like it to be a public art thing where I’d go anonymously and compose for a couple of hours and it keeps streaming and we put in these algorithms that make it move like wind. It’s incredibly gratifying and I’m going to keep doing it for sure.
It seems like a much less pressurised or fixed version of composition and performance. It’s just kind of exposing the way I make music on an everyday level but exposing it to people. People can just go hang out at the Sonic Arboretum and hang out for a few hours and become immersed in it instead of lining up to the show and getting a spot close to the stage and being so focused on me. I find it less exhausting. I just get up, ride my bike to the museum and go home. I’m not all tweaked out from pressure.
Do you think it’s influenced the way you’re planning this upcoming tour? Maybe it has. I’m going to see. I’m going to try to be, without losing my edge, a little less hell bent on the non-stop thrills of a show and take a little more time and let the songs breathe a little more. I do get that feeling when I’m in front of a bunch of people to keep the songs tight and go from one song to the next. That’s all good, they’re good impulses to have, but I think I get so intense about the performance that I can spare to indulge myself a bit more perhaps.
It seems less indulgent to me than standing on a stage and pretty much dictating songs to an audience though. It’s often easier to get into a gig if there are holes in the performance. I know that’s how I like to experience performances, I like to let it wash over me like a meditative thing. I don’t like when a band hit their audience with strobe lights and anthem after anthem. There’s this phenomenon that happens; you hit the audience and they hit you back and it builds and builds to this frenzy. I’d get so burned out on that. I get it, you know, and we can do that kind of high energy show but it would be a real drag I think. It’s all so ham-fisted. I think one of our strengths, rather than going down that road, is more dynamics. For one part of the set we’ll unplug everything and get around one microphone and just play, “old-timey” style. We’ll go from that to everyone making loops and sound coming from every angle, you can’t tell where it’s coming from. You get a pretty wide spectrum of a show.
Would you be worried about doing the “old-timey” stuff and seeming overly nostalgic or escapist? It just kind of shows you where I’m coming from I guess, it’s just another facet or way of making music for the sake of making music like you would in your kitchen you know. I think, the way we’re making sound on stage in the normal sense has gotten really, really complicated so it’s a nice antidote to that. I’ve stopped caring about style and nostalgia. I’ve done a good five or six records that are not coming from any particular genre or anything so that when I go back and do an old folk tune, it’s not like I’m trying to create some cinematic mood of the good old days for you. It’s just apparent to the audience that we get why that music is so joyous. That’s why on this record, with a song like ‘Danse Caribe‘, kind of unapologetically coming from that Caribbean/Afropop realm and why should I deny myself the joy I’m going to feel playing that song every night for two years just to avoid being referential? I mean, it sounds like us anyway. I think the key is not to be too reverent. Music is not for the museums, it’s supposed to be alive.
But the Sonic Arboretum is in a museum. I heard myself say that and I’m like, dang. But that’s not nostalgic in the least!