Andrew Bird refuses to let his music be caged

Andrew Bird says he's only recently become comfortable again covering songs from the early 20th century: "Now I'm like, 'OK, I've put out 10 records and if I feel like playing a Charley Patton tune, no one's gonna pigeonhole me as retro because of that."

Andrew Bird says he's only recently become comfortable again covering songs from the early 20th century: "Now I'm like, 'OK, I've put out 10 records and if I feel like playing a Charley Patton tune, no one's gonna pigeonhole me as retro because of that."

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Andrew Bird will not be boxed in.

"I just kind of follow my curiosities and whims," says Bird in a call from his Brooklyn home.

Bird first gained a national audience performing on violin with the Squirrel Nut Zippers in the late 1990s. Since that time he had gained his own audience with a series of albums that began with nods to early 20th century folk, jazz and pop and developed into a style that didn't quite have a category. It was, he says, a conscious decision.

"I started stripping away all those stylistic references. And anybody I was playing with, if I was playing with anybody, I was, 'Don't play that Bob Wills lick there' or, 'Don't pull the listeners into some nostalgic territory.'"

Beginning with the album "Weather Systems," Bird wanted the focus to be on the songs and "not about the decorations.

"That's the first time anyone referred to what I did as indie rock. At the time I was like, 'Really?' But I look back and it's kind of like I can see that now."

Bird grew up in Chicago and was a Suzuki violin student from the age of 4. In fact, it was classical music that he first connected with.

"Back then it was just part of everyday life," says Bird. "Mozart and Bach, I wouldn't say they were stirring my soul when I was 5 years old. It isn't until you're 15 or 16 that it becomes the soundtrack of your life and everything is very dramatic."

He says it was violin concertos by Beethoven, Dvorak and Mozart's "Requiem" that stood out.

"They're more Goth than any Goth I was listening to in high school."

Classical wasn't the only music he was connecting with that wasn't a favorite of teens, but he wasn't walking around town wearing a T-shirt with blues pioneer Charley Patton.

"I was always kind of into stuff that wasn't what was going on," says Bird. "Maybe I did enjoy being different. Who doesn't like being a little contrary sometimes? But even in Chicago in the mid-'90s, I was in the music scene there, during a time when the setting was very austere, the post-rock thing, and I was comparably a romantic. I was into old jazz and country blues and more like early 20th century stuff that had a cinematic flair to it. So I felt a little out of place there, too."

He did, however, find like-minded friends, including comic artist Chris Ware (who later designed album covers and posters of Bird).

"He collected old wax cylinders. He had an old machine that could write to wax cylinders and we'd play old ragtime together."

While he consciously separated himself from the vintage music scene, Bird says he again feels comfortable with referencing those older sounds. His upcoming album, "Hands of Glory" (due on Oct. 30), includes reinterpretations of old folk and blues songs.

"A song like 'Railroad Bill,' I learned that tune from Elizabeth Cotton, fingerstyle player ... that would most likely go in a bluegrass direction, but I play it as hot jazz like a trumpet player would. And that's where it pulled me, even if it's got a country bent to it. And it works. It's only a couple of hair's breaths away from that anyway."

Another thing that has changed about Bird is his instrumentation. The violin, which he became known for, all but dropped out of his performance at one point.

"I go through phases of falling in and out of love with the violin. Lately, I've been getting back into it. Other times I put it in the corner to do certain things that I want it to do. That's a complicated relationship."

One thing that has gotten more prominent is whistling — maybe the rarest sound in modern music.

"It would be weird for me not to whistle in my music because I do it incessantly," says Bird. "If I'm not talking or sleeping I'm whistling. So it would be weird to stop as soon as I start making music."

Bird says it might be hard for people who haven't heard him to understand what he does.

"If someone said, 'Hey, let's go see this guy who whistles and plays the violin!' to me I'd think that was little bit twee or something like that. But the live shows, we tear it up. We sing really hard and play really hard and it's a physical, emotional thing."

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Andrew Bird

With: Here We Go Magic

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4

Where: Tennessee Theatre

Tickets: $32, plus service charges, available at Knoxville Tickets outlets, 865-656-4444, www.knoxvilletickets.com

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