After his show at Foellinger Auditorium, the main attraction of the night Andrew Bird sat down with WPGU’s Patrick Singer and Josh Cannata for an exclusive interview.
Patrick Singer: What was touring like with Wilco?
Andrew Bird: Well I had known those guys for years. When you have a tour that’s put together like that there’s a general camraderie. It was really good.
PS: I saw some videos of you guesting on “Jesus, Etc.” during Wilco’s set. Is that one thing you enjoy doing? Going on for the other set or do you like having people on for your set? Tell me how that works.
AB: I can’t remember. I think not, I was in Amsterdam and I had Pat come play piano with me. They were coming from Italy that day and they had a day off. But I think it was earlier in the tour that I just played on “Jesus”. They played their whole catalog in Chicago and I was there for that and played with them for that.
Josh Cannata: You wrapped up the tour and now you’re about to set out and do some church shows. How much different is that now as opposed to playing with the full band? How does that affect you?
AB: Well the church shows are going to be solo for the most part. I’m going to resist the urge to open my mouth and say words. I’m going to create a different way of playing and experiencing music. It’s going to require more patience, because usually you do feel some impulse to engage and entertain. Engaging is always good, the entertaining part is a double edged sword. Sometimes it’s too insistent. I’m thinking that in the churches it will be more atmospheric and experiential. People can just sit and let it wash over them and I can just play. I’m just trying to keep it kind of loose and play what I feel.
PS: More of a solemn feeling in the churches?
AB: Solemn, well I was thinking more, cozy. I don’t know about solemn. It is kind of a seasonal thing when it gets dark out. I remember playing as a kid in the in churches and I enjoyed that coziness, so I’m trying to recreate that. But in general the solo thing as opposed to the band, it requires more emotional energy, because the idea is that the band has your back and the show can run on its own adrenaline and energy. But with the solo show you’re creating every sound yourself, so you have to create both the things that are pushing against each other. It takes a lot of it out of you, and to do that and it’s more kind of exposed and human.
JC: Why did you pick, obviously Chicago, and then Minneapolis? Why the specific churches? How did you choose them or is there a reason?
AB: I like to pick room and play to that room. I like very live spaces and I like to get the sound to bounce around the room and mingle in the air and kind of become something else. So I thought if I do it in a sort of, sacred space, that I have a chance of people resetting their expectations as opposed to typical venues when people say “ok, what do you got, entertain me” as opposed to going to a church and you might bliss out, not worry about it. Because I’m trying to draw the attention away from my personal self and just have it be music.
PS: After that Josh and I discussed some of your plans about going abroad.
JC: Australia, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Japan then back to Hawaii and then back to Los Angeles. How’s that going to go? What are you looking forward to when doing that?
AB: I mean Australia is always very nice and it’s of course summer in January. But China is a total X-factor. People say it’s going to blow your mind and change your life. When you’re on tour the scenery around you is like a movie that’s playing. It’s hard to connect to where you are a lot and I try really hard, but sometimes you can’t connect. I couldn’t really resist the adventure. I don’t really need to play China for my career [laughs] I mean I do, but I just couldn’t resist.
PS: Does where you go and tour affect the way you write? Or do you not write in certain areas or do you find more inspiration in the places that you visit in particular?
AB: When I bring my bike on tour I write a lot. When I drive somewhere I write like crazy. But in the bus in the bunk with no windows, it affects your imagination. I think when you’re in closed spaces and can’t see more than few feet in front of you, I don’t hear much music. But when I can see long distances, melodies just pop into my head.
JC: Cool. What’s the next step for your music in terms of recording? Is there anything planned out or are you thinking about it?
AB: I need to take a break for while. I get excited now with ideas and different projects and challenging myself or mix it up and do collaborations, but I’m resisting those urges.
JC: I got some easy questions for you. We were talking about your socks and we saw a huge ladder on stage during sound check. Are you superstitious or anything and what is your routine that you go through when you’re playing shows?
AB: Yeah, there are always superstitions. Every time a show goes well you think of what went right and how you can repeat it. You go back to when you were a kid, I remember I’d go up to bed, I’d have to go up the stairs in a certain number of steps otherwise there are very dire circumstances if you didn’t, or if you cross the street you have to do it a certain way. Anyways, it’s a bit like that. The monkey is a bit like that. I used to walk out with the monkey and now it just hangs out on stage.
JC: Where did the monkey come from? Who made it?
AB: Toronto. They made monkeys for everyone in the band, but I guess I just become more attached to mine [laughs].
PS: Does he or she have a name?
AB: Umm. No not really I’m not really creative with that, it’s just “the monkey” and the spinny horn is just “the spinny horn” the big horns are “the big horns”.
JC: Why did you double the horns on stage?
AB: For the church shows.
JC: Is it to seem like there are more things on stage with you?
AB: No, no, it’s strictly the sound. I own two of the big ones then we rented the other two because the church shows we’re doing without a PA, so that is the PA, and they sound really good.
PS: Yeah they sounded fantastic.
JC: Let’s go easier questions; are you holiday shopping or anything? Have you been shopping? Are you looking forward to that?
AB: Not especially, no I haven’t really done that yet [laughs]
JC: Do you want anything in particular?
AB: I hadn’t really thought about that either [laughs]. I don’t need anything.
PS: What music have you been listening to recently or today?
AB: Today on the way down I listened to some African jams. I was out on my farm and I was listening to a lot of dub stuff, it’s a lot of my easy listening things these days. There’s Washington Philips record I enjoy, he’s an old gospel guy with a kind of creepy little tiny piano.
JC: Like a toy piano?
AB: Kind of, I think it’s called a pianola. It’s kind of out of tune and kind of creepy.
JC: Do you have any favorite artists that have really influenced you, or does it change?
AB: People that remind me to be good, or try to be good. Like, Handsome Family for lyrics, they have some lines in some of their songs that are so heartbreaking and they kind of encourage me when I think I’m not making much sense. When I just write something just because it sounds beautiful and it makes you feel something, and they encourage me that it’s ok to be vague. I mean their songs are so vague that they still break your heart. I mean you don’t even know exactly what they’re talking about but it still hurts. So it’s that and Cass McCombs, I’ve been covering a few of his songs. I think he’s a great lyricist. Also, he doesn’t make any sense. You read the liner notes and you think of just how they could make a song, but it works.
JC: I think that what you were saying before, even with the lyrics that don’t make sense; they still create that experience that you want everyone to have. I think that works really well with what you were saying with those church shows, and I think you’re very personable on stage. Is that what you’re saying, you’re trying to tone that down and just play and let it wash over everyone?
AB: Yeah, I mean I like to engage the audience. I kind of have this “well folks, I’m doing the best I can”
JC: You definitely have a sense of humor.
AB: I don’t want to come across too serious. I came up in classical music where this was somewhat of contempt for the audience. You’d play in these orchestras and the first day you’d get the music and play this music and then you’d say “This is terrible. Oh I hate this music” and then you’d play it forty times. You have to stay connected to your instincts when you hear something for the first time, did it move you? We’re all sponges and we soak it up and can be acclimated to anything, even if it’s the sound of the furnace or something. If you don’t like something at first, maybe, it’s not that you’re narrow-minded at times; it’s just that it doesn’t work with you. I didn’t really answer your question but…
JC: It was interesting anyways. [laughs]
PS: Do you always play with your shoes off?
AB: Yes, it’s a necessity. I have to turn these tiny little dials with my toes.
PS: That takes s a lot of skill then.
JC: A lot of practice and coordination going into your shows [laughs]
AB: There’s a fair amount. If something doesn’t go right, it’s not the end of the world.
JC: It’s part of the show. It makes it different every time.