Andrew Bird, a sublimely gifted multi-instrumentalist from Chicago who favors violin, hollow body electric guitar, and exultant whistling, recently went through one of his regular periods of reinvention, setting aside his long-running touring band and recording an album of songs by The Handsome Family, a country-rock act now widely known for the song that kicks off True Detective. Bird is now touring with a (mostly) new backup band, playing a mix of his own material and beguiling Handsome Family cuts, which he recently recorded for an album called Things Are Really Great Here... Sort of.
His sound is sumptuous as ever, even if it rocks a little less hard, and at a recent performance on the East Coast, Bird confessed to a rapt audience that he'd come to feel a sense of ownership over the Handsome Family material. Happily, he still retains full ownership over his own songs, and you can immerse yourself in both at this FREE show Stern Grove Festival show on Sunday, August 3. (You can also catch him in Big Sur on Friday night, Saratoga on Saturday night, and in LA on September 21.)
Let’s talk about the tour. How’s it going? It’s going great. This is a new group. Every show we’re learning what we’re capable of and it’s far exceeded my expectations because I kind of stumbled into this line-up. When I was living in New York, I was neighbors with Tift Merritt. We started playing together, just doing covers and then we started doing some Handsome Family songs together, and I really feel that it brought out in me a different kind of singing; a different kind of phrasing.
I don’t know if it would have happened, or continued to develop, but during Hurricane Sandy—I don’t know if you know this story—during the hurricane, David Letterman called. His people called the night before and they were supposed to have David Byrne on. And even though David’s local, he had a lot of musicians coming from different boroughs so he didn’t think they could all get there. They asked if I could do something. I had moved my family up to the Upper West Side, because our building was in Zone A, and so I was just a couple blocks from Ed Sullivan Theater. So I could do it. And Tift was downtown in SoHo and Alan, my bass player was in Brooklyn and actually went across the Brooklyn Bridge during the storm. Not at the height of it, of course. So it was a heroic effort. We all got there, the skeleton crew, and it was really bizarre, because they just had a skeleton crew at Letterman and for once, they seemed to be happy to see us.
For once? Well, they're notoriously a little hard on musicians. Yeah, I think I’ve seen a clip of Radiohead being a bit annoyed at the process at Letterman once. Yeah, out of all those shows, it’s the least... But after awhile it becomes somewhat endearing. They’re just, they’ve got this guy saying something inappropriate, but he was kind of likeable. And we just did a Townes Van Zandt and it seemed appropriate for the occasion. And that was our first gig, that was our first public show. And then I grabbed Tift’s pedal steel player, Eric Heywood, and my old drummer from Bowl of Fire, Kevin O’Donnell. So it’s not brand new collaborations but it’s still a cool combination of people.
I wanted to ask about this process, because a lot of your solo career has been working with Martin Dosh. And then you had a pretty regular group that you toured with that built up around that. I was wondering how it came to pass that you’re not working with Marty and those other guys? And is this permanent? We still do shows. We have a show coming up in Minneapolis in a baseball field in a few weeks. That relationship is still there. I just, you know, I don’t know. That Minneapolis band is kind of... there’s a lot going on in that band. Martin brings kind of an underground, hip hop sensibility to it. There are a lot of kind of unusual combinations. Jeremy Ylvisaker, the guitarist, has almost a kind of Kevin Shields thing going on. All that stuff is kind of not what you’d expect me to be doing. And it became a very... for me... Martin and I combined the looping and kind of grew it into a whole band and integrated into that. There are lots of layers going on live. We did a lot of shows. I was kind of interested in doing something a little more stripped down and song-based and a little more supported. I’m in a phase now where I’m trying to nail this vocal thing that I’ve been trying to get for years.
What does that mean? Like, I’ve made 12 records and still haven’t quite nailed what I’m capable of as a singer. Which is not frustrating at all, it’s kind of cool that I’m still searching for it. Because I know, based on shows that I’ve played sometimes, that when I’m uninhibited I can sing like Roy Orbison. But I can’t seem to get that on a record. For whatever reason. So I’m just trying out different scenarios to try to nail that elusive vocal.
With this Handsome Family record, that was part of the multi-purpose of that record. To experiment with different recording set-ups and really go for it. And it helps to do it with someone else’s songs, where there’s not as much baggage. And I felt like I got pretty close. I was kind of inspired by the old country records of the early '60s, where the singers are just singing so beautifully. Just huge voices that just saturate the room that you played in. Marty Robbins stuff, for example. And that’s what we do. We set up two microphones going straight into a tape machine, not even a board. We did it in my living room, which has very high ceilings. No headphones, everything live, belted it out. With this new group we mostly strip it down to the trio to get all the vocals, and then we add things later. But it’s mostly a live, certainly all-live singing, performance record.
What do you think it is about the Handsome Family songs that resonates with you so much? You know part of it is, I met them when I was in my early 20s in Chicago and it was an interesting time. But the first song of theirs I heard was "The Giant of Illinois," which is a song about this kind of circus freak kid who is incredibly tall. And who apparently died of a blister on his toe. And it’s a tragic story and it has this line in it and it does what the best of their songs do. The narrative goes to a point and then the chorus drops in and says, “The sky was a woman’s arms.” Which seems like a non-sequitur, but I love singing that song because I’m never going to know exactly what that means. What it hints at is that the tragedy is that this boy will never know, will never fulfill his dreams or desires, never know a woman’s arms. I don’t know. It’s got some ambiguous line that really packs a punch. The best songwriting does that. It condenses a novel’s worth of material into three sentences and makes it the chorus. I think it gives the listener credit for having imagination.
That’s what I like about a lot of your lyrics too. They’re evocative and there’s room for interpretation but they can also sometimes be very specific and cut right through to the bone. Sometimes it takes language that’s outside of our everyday language to do that. To make you stop and not be so matter-of-fact, the “just-getting-through-the-day” kind of mentality. And that’s what you hope to do with the song, I think.
Do you write lyrics every day? Do you have a notebook and are you constantly writing down things as they come to you? No. I don’t fill notebooks with poetry. I get melodies first, and then I intone things and I look for words that do what I need them to do, melodically. But that kind of necessity, that kind of free association with the subconscious thing, it starts off with intoning nonsense and then it works its way towards meaning. And it’s kind of an arduous process. I don’t write much more than what’s in the song. If that makes sense. I don’t have much excess material.
What is it about "Tables and Chairs" that you keep returning to? Of all your songs, that seems to be the one that you most frequently play or use to bring a show to an end. You know, I think it’s a nod towards the whole experience of people gathering together outside, not in some dark room, nevertheless it’s a communal experience. The song is kind of musing about the end of the world not being such a bad thing, cause we’re all just having a big party. It’s knowing that the end of the world, the apocalypse, would really be a drag, but I’m just ignoring that and saying, nah it’ll be great. Because we’re all gonna have our own monetary economy, and we’ll all start bartering again and be in each other’s face and talking to each other. And I feel like that it being the end of the show, "apocalyptic" makes sense, but also it seems to kind of bring people together.
What’s on the horizon for you for the rest of the year and beyond? I'm working on an installation for the ICA in Boston. I’m recording in a remote location this fall, in the Southwest somewhere, in a natural amphitheater. Somewhere—we haven’t figured it out quite yet—in the Arizona region in the desert. So I’m going to do a site recording and create a picture of that natural environment. And then transposing it to the gallery at the ICA via these horns that I play through. So, I don’t know if it’s going to be successful. It’s kind of an ambitious project, just logistically. But I’m pretty into it. And I’ve always wanted to do something like that. And, beyond that, I need to write a lot this fall and winter and start working on a record.