If you haven't yet seen Andrew Bird live, then you've got a pretty easy decision to make regarding your Thursday night plans: He'll be performing at Radio City Music Hall with his stellar three-piece band, and tickets are still on sale! Of course, if you've already had the Andrew Bird live experience, there's no deciding necessary: to see him once is to be blown away and left wanting more, so you've already got tickets burning a hole in your pocket. We've pretty much exhausted all our superlatives when it comes to Bird, whose voice, violin, guitar, glockenspiel, and virtuoso whistling combine—often simultaneously—to create a sublime, almost unclassifiable pop-Americana soundscape. His most recent album, Noble Beast, is just further proof that Bird's compositional gifts are an embarrassment of riches; but the only proof you'll need, should you remain unconvinced, will be presented in its entirety Thursday night at Radio City, Q.E.D.
Last time you were in New York, you played Carnegie Hall. How was that experience, performing in that legendary room? What was cool about it was that it's not all hype. There's a reason why it has that name. I like feeling out the natural acoustics of a room like that, being able to hear my instrument bouncing off the walls without my amps or without the P.A. That's the first thing I did—just play on the stage without being plugged in. And, you know, having my private dressing room be the "Maestro Suite" with the Steinway grand and pictures of all the conductors going back to the 19th century—you know, it was cool. And the people who run the place are very personable and cool, so all in all, it was great.
Were you nervous or more nervous than usual before the show? Actually, I wasn't so bad. I was really ill and my back was out, but around the hours before the show, during the show, and afterward, suddenly it was healed, for at least a brief period of time. But that's a weird thing that happens. I often get a fever before I go on stage. All year I've had weird body temperature things, but as soon as I step on stage—it's probably the adrenaline or something—but my shoulders relax and I feel no pain. Everything sort of becomes peaceful and comes back.
And now you'll be at Radio City, which is twice the size. So I guess next time you're in town, you'll play Madison Square Garden. You know, I don't know about that. I think this is as big as it should get. I prefer to do more, like, multiple smaller shows than one big blowout. We've been running the whole spectrum. We just came from Europe where we're playing smoky, sweaty clubs in Germany, which is pretty good for morale.
Why is it good for morale? The band is really close together and we're responding to each other and people are pressed up against the stage and you're sweating. You're just reminded of what you're capable of. If we did too many Carnegie Halls in a row, you'd kind of forget where you're coming from.
And speaking of sweaty, you're back at Bonnaroo this month. What appeals to you about that particular festival? That, of all of them, is my favorite. I had a really good experience there last time and it has kind of a Southern hospitality feel. It's run by a Southern conglomerate and people are just extremely friendly. It's kind of a social thing, too; you see other bands you appreciate and hang out with them. I've always liked the Southeast.
Are you aware that your set time at Bonnaroo conflicts with Merle Haggard? Also with Erykah Badu's. So that's tough. But I didn't know about Merle Haggard. That's too bad. I'd like to see him.
From what I've read, I get the impression that you are always making music; that essentially every waking moment, you're working on your music. Is that accurate? Pretty much. Except when I'm talking to journalists. But other than that, barring major distractions, I'm pretty able to sink into myself and keep myself entertained. I never have an excuse to be bored. I've got five or six songs cooking that I can pull out and play around with it in my head. Or, you know, I just wake up and as soon as coffee hits my veins, then it's melody, just everyday.
So I assume as you're touring now, you're preparing and cultivating material for another album. What is the time line like on that? Do you have plans return to the studio soon? I have not taken a break in years and I think I'm due for a more significant break. I went right from touring "Armchair" into the studio and back onto the road. So I just feel like I've been touring constantly for the past three or four years and more or less for the past 10 or 11 years. I used to have this ethic that performing and writing and touring were all the same thing. But every time I make a record, I then have to explain myself, and that kind of self-awareness and self-consciousness is, I don't know, starting to tip the other way. And whereas performing was feeding me before, it might be starting to tip the other way, as well. So I've got to maybe rethink it. I didn't like the idea of being the artist that disappears for a couple of years, and I don't like to hem and haw about my records too much. I just like to get in there and get in and out really quick. Recording to me is almost as demanding as, if not more demanding than, touring. Recording to me is like a musical bender. You go in for four days and don't sleep until your body and mind collapse.
When I interviewed you a couple of years ago, we talked about the live shows and you said you liked to put a couple of songs in the middle of the set to balance it out and "make sure we're not getting too orgasmic." I meant to ask you at the time: Why would you try to stop a performance from getting too orgasmic? I don't like it when bands have the orgasmic freak-out, I guess, multiple times during the show. It wears out its welcome. Not that it can't get orgasmic, but maybe once or twice. I'm always trying to plan the perfect set and pace everything to make the set like it's one song. It's like a movie: every show something goes wrong, there's struggle, there's triumph, but that's the thing about playing Bonnaroo or these festivals where you get closer to the headlining spot and you play longer. Your material doesn't really translate. You'd be amazed how long 90 minutes feels. In a theater, like at Radio City, 2 hours will probably go by like nothing. But not at these festivals. You keep putting out this ecstatic energy, and that's cool for 45 minutes, but for 90 minutes, it's a little tricky.
Maybe you'll dip more into the back catalog? I have been going back. It's novel to do the songs more like they were originally recorded. As soon as the record comes out, I'd like to do the song differently. But now I'm going back and remembering, "Oh, I stopped doing that part." We're bringing back some stuff from The Swimming Hour like "Head Soak," and doing this old, hellfire-and-brimstone country tune called, "Trials, Troubles, and Tribulations." It's kind of fun to go back and play a western swing solo over a tune. That's okay now. I've come full circle. I'm getting off now on doing two-part harmonies with the band and doing stuff that's kind of old-timey, like the first couple of records.
Yeah, your band is so great now. I feel like I've got this pressure now to realize what we're capable of. And those guys just want to do a really good job. They're all so un-jaded. They've got this selfless devotion. We just want to make sure we're not locked in to playing the same arrangement of the same song.
I know you played at a benefit concert for Obama before the election. Where were you when he won? What was your reaction? I was at my barn with no TV and no radio and I was relying on friends sending texts. I can't remember why I had to be out there, but after having heard about the scene in Chicago on election night, I kind of wish I was there. I usually avoid crowds, but that—I wish I was there for that.