A Conversation With Andrew Bird

AndrewBird

Along with congratulating Andrew Bird on being married and having a son, the first notion you consider when talking to him about his newly released Are You Serious is how the complicated composer and abstraction-heavy wordsmith has now made his systems of messaging more blunt without oversimplifying things. Rather than beat cheerily or ruefully around the bush as he has for 10 albums before this one, Bird gets quickly to the point of folksy, jazzy, romantic songs. Bird isn’t too sweet, though—he’s currently responsible for the music for Zach Galifianakis’ dark clown comedy Baskets.

What’s your favorite new word, and why do you care for it?
I like when people address one another as “Sweetness,” especially men.

You often address what you’re doing within idioms such as pop or swing or whatever. What was the last classical thing—new or old, that you never really “got” before—that caught your ear as of late?
I was just playing a festival in Holland with Glenn Kotche and Neil Finn and there was a young violinist named Diamanda Dramm who played a Schoenberg piece, I think it was Pierrot Lunaire. She sang operatically while accompanying herself on violin. It was incredibly beautiful and mind-meltingly difficult. I realized that a lot of modern music turned me to at first because it’s played with such severity. Alban Berg string quartets also knocked me out recently. I think it’s the way they were played—perhaps more calmly. Too many string players strangle the music with passion and fury, so I’m taking another look at the Second Viennese School.

It’s been, like, 20 years since your first album. When was the last time you listened to it—and even if you haven’t tucked into it, what do you think of its music and ideas now?
I heard it a few years ago and thought, “Dang, that’s some tricky playing in a sort of self-taught-don’t-know-what-the-rules-are-yet spirit.” I started that record when I was 19. All those old records, I’m struck by how actionpacked and restless they are. When I hear them, I think, “Slow down, kid.”

You wrote the score to Jonathan Segal’s Norman, and recently did the same for FX’s Baskets. Other than the money, what must a filmmaker have to get your attention?
It’s certainly not money. I turn down a lot of stuff that just doesn’t need me. There are many composers who need the work and would do a fine job. I’m looking to see if there’s room to do something, make music that’s extraordinary, or if I respect the director so much that I’m happy to be a cog in their machine.

What sort of contact did you have with Louis C.K. or Zach Galifianakis? This isn’t a big celebrity question but rather one about interaction, as C.K. is famously hands-on.
I had no contact with Louis, as I think he has an executive-producer role. Zach, I’ve known for six years, and he asked me to do it back when it was being developed. I think Zach and Louis as comedians have as much to say about humanity as would a great art-house director.

You wrote “The Whistling Caruso” for The Muppets. What was that experience—puppets—like in comparison to the more serious work you’ve done? What is your son’s reaction to your Muppet employment?
Flight Of The Conchord’s director did The Muppets. Portlandia’s director did Baskets. I was familiar with their comedic sensibility, so when directors like that ask me to keep rerecording a cue, I was more than happy to. You have to make it so sincere or so virtuosic that it’s laughable. My son digs it. Dr. Stringz is his favorite.

I appreciate that you’re not hokey, always putting birds on your LP covers. Yet, when you do—the new album, 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha—it’s a parakeet, no? What gives? What speaks to you about the parakeet?
When (concept artist) John Baldessari puts a parakeet on your record, you say thanks for that.

I get that your lyrics have had the feel of the cryptic, something sometimes amorphous in their dealings with the human condition. Two questions here: Why do you feel that you were painting more abstractly for so long? And, are you crediting all of the more personal revelations within Are You Serious to being in love and comfortable with a like-minded being?
Every song I’ve written has at its root a personal story. With my more recent work, you just don’t have to dig as deep to find it. When I was younger, I thought getting married and having a family would risk making me more complacent, and that’s certainly not the case. It’s made me less patient with poetics and more determined to say what I need to say. Break It Yourself, Are You Serious, there’s more urgency and violence in those titles than, say, Music Of Hair.

What was your criterion on Are You Serious for a duet partner on “Left Handed Kisses,” and how did Fiona Apple hit all of your needs?
She sings the voice of my own self-doubt, not an enviable role. I knew it couldn’t be sweet or pretty. It was a short list, and after failing to summon Nina Simone, we called Fiona.

I recently saw a great photo of you with your wife and baby and thought to myself, “Wow, now that is a visibly happy man.” Do you ever see a photo of your family unit, or catch the three of you in a car window or mirror and go, “Hey, this is different from the guy I knew 10 or more years ago’?
How could I not?

—A.D. Amorosi