Twisted with such subtlety you’re taken in before you know it, Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire, and their latest disc, Oh! The Grandeur, are too original to be so accessible, too arcane to be so catchy, too smart to be so popular, and entirely too musically expert to rock at all…but somehow they do.
Bird’s music is marbled with hints of Satchmo, Lead Belly, Django Reinhardt, Bessie Smith, Rudy Vallee, the Mississippi Sheiks, and substantial chunks of the entire Folkways output, with occasional accents of Latin, Eastern European and Middle Eastern traditional music just to keep you guessing. He’s clearly captivated by the endurance of evergreen forms, but even more so by the popular music of the early 20th century, and he’s busy divining the contents of the black box called “pop,” that jello-on-a-nail medium in which the point of the message is to be received and remembered.
Contrasting it with forms such as avant garde jazz or obscure and technique-stretching classical works that may impress musicians more than fans, Bird characterizes pop music as “a selfless thing.” “I’ve only become aware of this pop/rock/whatever thing in the last couple of years,” he says. “To me, pop in its true form is incredibly well-crafted and designed. Everything is placed; everything is there not necessarily to indulge one’s intellect, but to indulge one’s sweet tooth.”
Bird began playing violin at age four; he later studied at the renowned Berklee College of Music and earned a degree in music from Northwestern University. He was hungry for mastery but chafed under the constraints of those institutions’ academic approach, so he spent hours in the library absorbing the history of recorded music. The rest of his time was spent in the studio, learning to play exactly what he’d heard, and then reinterpreting it.
Bird’s playing regularly transits from raunchy to divine, poignant to ecstatic, fiery to serenely poetic — occasionally all in one phrase, and seemingly as easily as he breathes. He can pierce a melody with a single note, or flesh it out with the sound of two or three violins coming from just one. Occasionally for effect, or perhaps for respite, he’ll simply play it like a ukulele.
Singing and songwriting are more recent endeavors. The former he claims to have learned from the violin, a fact he occasionally underscores to great effect by singing and playing the same figure simultaneously. With the violin as his model, and a particular passion for what he calls “round sounds” (he named the band after a magic trick whose name he found particularly enjoyable to say), Bird’s melodic improvisations and phrasing take fascinating and often surprising turns. His voice is neither sweet nor cloyingly clear, but he always puts it where he intends, and he never seems to run out of ideas.
In another era, Bird’s songwriting might have been characterized as clever and witty. With somewhat less compassion, his lyrics might have arisen from Dorothy Parker’s roundtable at the Algonquin Hotel. Instead they are drawn, more or less, from a mental institution. Bird was exposed from an early age to the extremes of socially unacceptable thought and behavior, and to the sometimes inscrutable nature of its management. His brother is an institutionalized victim of autism. Since he began writing prose in high school, Bird’s themes have tended toward the fuzzier edges of mental illness. Where, Bird ponders frequently, is the line between madness and socially acceptable eccentricity? “We’re all varying degrees of autistic,” he contends.
Consistent with this view, Bird writes sympathetic songs about the madder thoughts of people with the social skills to conceal them, but he delivers his weighty wisdom in witty bits. In his lyric imagery, mundane details take on outsized significance. Leg of lamb, for instance, is a beacon of comfort in a sea of unthinking familial cruelty. That his dog has a nasal disease is a telling detail in the depiction of an elderly owner with low self-esteem.
More pointed is the song “Tea And Thorazine”. Bird sings, “You laugh like a banshee, gesticulate your delirium/They treat you like a corpse, keep you full of candy lithium/What a dream life would seem if you could see/The world from inside an Etch-A-Sketch.” It’s a catchy tune. And just to help keep things in perspective, Bird cautions in a caricature of melodrama, “Beware”, that we shouldn’t believe anything we’ve heard in the last three or four millennia because, after all, “It wasn’t long ago, just before the reign of Nero/We had no concept of zero.”
Bird’s pop pursuit took on speed with an incidental encounter at a folk festival where he was performing Irish music, his obsession immediately prior to pop. There he met Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who became a friend and mentor. “Playing with Jimbo in his kitchen is what really got me going,” he says. “What he taught me is how to write a really good pop song.
“I had been into doing more exotic things and expanding my technique on this kind of linear progression,” Bird continues, explaining that his first, self-released album, Music Of Hair, got this out of his system. “Jimbo made me realize there is an art to creating something that’s familiar that also has a life of its own.
“What I learned from Jimbo was this kind of art of taking music that’s very outside the mainstream, and from just sheer savviness and cunningness, infiltrating [popular music], which they [the Zippers] succeed in doing without sacrificing any integrity.” Not long after meeting Mathus, Bird toured with the Zippers and eventually recorded with them, but he seemed to learn quickly that it was not what he wanted to do. “We don’t keep tempo for dancing,” he says of his own band.
Bowl Of Fire is an arsenal of musicianship that keeps tempo, and everything else, well harnessed in service to a song. Bird met and began playing with bassist Josh Hirsch and drummer Kevin O’Donnell, another music major, while at Northwestern. “Kevin is the only drummer I’ve played with,” Bird says. “He’s just very responsible for what I’m able to do now rhythmically. Having played with him for that long [five years], it helped break down any kind of classical residue that I had. Eliminated it. Definitely.”
Joined by Mathus and other guest musicians, Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire released its first CD, Thrills, on Rykodisc in April 1998. Because “no one knew what they were gonna get from me at that point,” Bird says, making Thrills was like a party, and the party continued as Bird played out a concept for presenting it. Collaborating with a Chicago theater company, he developed a revue based on the characters in his songs. The band performed it twelve times for up to 60 people a night before Bird refocused on rock venues.
By contrast, Bird says Oh! The Grandeur was nearly his undoing. The bar had been set. He obsessed about the record, first getting the music right, then recording it with a single microphone. He considers Grandeur to be more crafted than Thrills: He was very conscious of wanting to be concise, to fit each song within three minutes, but still have the record fully represent the range of his musical interests and moods.
Only half in jest, Bird suggests now that he “might have taken it a bit far” in obsessing over recording with just one microphone. “A single microphone has no mercy. If anything goes wrong, you have to do the whole thing over, but if you can pull it off…sonically it’s an amazing thing, that interplay off one microphone.”
Visually, it’s also an amazing thing to watch Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire perform. Collin Bunn, another Northwestern music grad, was added on guitar after Thrills was released. Bird’s bandmates are serious, fluent and painstakingly conscientious musicians who play showmanship for sheer fun. “Live, I think we’re just trying to create a palpable kind of energy and fun,” Bird says. “Sure, I think about trying to relay the ideas in song. What’s really gonna drive that home is if you perform it in an exciting way — a vital, energetic way.”
As with Thrills, Bird has seen his work broadened to a still more visual palette in performance. Rykodisc funded, and will distribute on DVD, a performance piece the band staged at the Hideout, a Chicago bar. The film includes six songs from Grandeur and an anthem to Greenland, including a dramatic reading, which the band has only performed live. “It’s based on an actual experience,” Bird says. “We re-created the weirdest, if not the worst, gig we’ve ever played.” And they did it around a single microphone.