Press release after press release trying to attract attention to Andrew Bird's beautiful songs mentions he's the "former Squirrel Nut Zipper fiddler." True, but totally misleading. For the last four years, the classically trained musician has released three albums that massage the hearts of hipsters the world over. We at CityBeat feel he's one of the most underappreciated artists of the Zero-Zeros. Apparently, so does Ani DiFranco, who signed him to her label, Righteous Babe Records, and is taking him on tour.
On his way to San Diego, Bird engaged in jocular repartée with CityBeat about studying music at Northwestern University, abusing his instrument and wearing colorful socks.
CityBeat: How bad did it suck taking violin lessons at age 4 when all your pals were out playing high-stakes Garbage Pail Kids poker?
Andrew Bird: My folks were wise enough not to hand a 4-year-old a violin, so I started with a cracker-jack box with a ruler taped to it. This is the late-'70s, now, and we were deep in the Wacky Pack sticker era. GPK didn't come along 'til the '80s. Give a 4-year-old a real violin and they're likely to cover it in Wacky Pack Stickers.
Was Northwestern really a bunch of old bow-tiers who just wanted to jam Stravinsky over and over?
Hey, Stravinsky is pretty damn cool. If only I could've gotten them to "jam" Stravinsky. I remember playing "L'histoire du Soldat" with a trio, with movements titled "Tango" and "Swing." I brought in examples of real tangos and Louis Armstrong to help us loosen up a bit. I was met with such resistance. "Let's just follow the program and get the grade," said the clarinetist. The classical music world's idea of shaking things up is to wear sneakers in a performance. You can do what you like, but don't take any risks. I only credit conservatory with making things difficult for me.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers, god bless their hearts, seemed a band caught up in a fad and then gone. Has your association with their music been good or bad for the ol' career?
I have no regrets about my time with the SNZs. They were a hard-living scrappy bunch of Southern freaks into old-timey jazz and calypso. I had a great time with them. At the time I was but 23 and took my old 78s pretty seriously and was pretty appalled at the bands jumping on the swing wave. Whether it's been good or bad for my career, it's finally stopped being an issue. All I see is the problem of assumptions. Describing me to a prospective concertgoer as "former SNZ fiddler" tells you absolutely nothing about what you'll hear at the show or what I've been doing for the last four years.
You covered the Handsome Family. Great band, but only the geek at the record store knows about "em. Why cover such nobodies?
All the more reason to cover them. They have some really lovely songs that, to be honest, their own recordings don't always capture. They are like blueprints for mega-hits in an ideal universe.
You often play your violin like a guitar. Are you really just a classical music nerd who wanted to be a rock guitarist but your parents weren't hip to that evil shit?
My parents were always cool with whatever I did. I had my dramatic, teen-angst phase like everybody else, but instead of listening to Joy Division and This Mortal Coil like my friends, I listened to Mozart's Requiem and lit candles. Same difference. I didn't have any rock-guitar fantasies of joining a band to meet girls, though getting into clubs with my band when I'm 19 to play "Come On Eileen" and girls dancing wasn't totally lost on me.
You've said you like to abuse your violin. Has it ever pressed charges? How, exactly, do you abuse it?
I've already smashed it to pieces once, left it in a supermarket, gouged it with my furious metal licks. I've been playing for so long, and this piece of wood has caused me so much grief and physical pain that I get a perverse joy out of neglecting and/or abusing this rather expensive thing. I also like to prove to it or myself that I don't need it. I'm classically trained, I suppose, but I don't have that preciousness or whatever. I just use it to make the sound I want.
You've said that every night, you're "rewriting your songs for the audience." Is that some kind of silver-tongued malarkey to get fans to follow you around like the Dead, or do you really change it every single night?
Speaking of preciousness. A worse fate than death is to allow myself to go on autopilot. I'm restless, and though it's not totally free-form-the solo show needs to be choreographed to a degree-I just need to entertain myself and take risks, and I can tell that the audience can sense this and appreciate it. As an improviser, my goal is to find new themes and melodies, not to take you on a journey, but to arrive. I hope I'm not as aimless and indulgent as the Dead, god bless 'em.
I've heard you get really nervous before the show. Ever puke? What calms the nerves-booze, pictures of George W. Bush?
I don't get nervous. I get nerves. Or superstitious that if I don't do a certain degree of pacing and fidgeting I'll have a bad show. Booze? Sometimes I could use a drink, but can't touch the stuff 'cause it dries out my lips for whistling.
What's the key to good whistling? Gargling Vaseline?
Just put your lips together and blow.
Are you gonna play in bedroom slippers at the show? I think that's sexy.
I just wear colorful socks and kick off my slip-on boots. I'm a real showman that way. B
Andrew Bird, good whistler in colorful socks, opens for Ani DiFranco at Copley Symphony Hall, 8 p.m. on Feb. 13. $33. 619-220-8497.