Andrew Bird on his songwriting process and his approach to improvising using loops

Chicago-based singer-songwriter Andrew Bird (performing tonight at the Arvada Center for Arts and Humanities and tomorrow evening at Chautauqua Auditorium) says that since he's been writing music there's always a healthy conflict between brevity and indulgence.

On one hand, Bird knows all about crafting short, near perfect pop songs, but with his most recent effort, the instrumental album Useless Creatures, Bird took a more sprawling, ambient approach where songs run a bit longer. We spoke with Bird recently about making the album, his approach to songwriting and improvising with loops.

Westword: Can you tell me about making Useless Creatures?

Andrew Bird: It seemed like the last couple of records that were songwriting-oriented with lyrics and everything were just getting more and more focused on that, which is a noble pursuit, but sometimes there's so much jamming that goes into generating these ideas that ends up on the cutting room floor. I wanted to devote a whole record to those ideas, because before I started writing songs, I was a fiddle player and into my instrument. Sometimes it's good to just check in with that side of my musicality.

Yeah, it was a lot of fun to make. It was a fairly easy and effortless to make compared to the songwriting records. That doesn't mean it's... You start to equate hard you work or how difficult something is with how good it is. But sometimes you get some really good stuff off the cuff like that.

With the songwriter material, has that been hard or a challenge at times?

The challenges are different. I kind of enjoyed that for a while, having to be concise and having to become ruthless with your editing in service of the song. Everything kind of ends up being, "Okay, is what I'm doing here like making a song better?" And it's a very different approach than the instrumental stuff. Your attention span is completely different as a human being using their mouth.

Like when someone is trying to engage you in conversation and your attention span changes, and you're trying to process the narrative of that person. But when it's instrumental music, you can just relax and just let it wash over you and not be so intent judging it, necessarily. You can just let it be.

I've done this before with Weather Systems. It kind of served that purpose as Useless Creatures. It kind of diffused the pressure of trying to write those three-minute songs. My process doesn't always conform to the industry cycle of putting out a record with twelve songs every two or three years.

As you can see across several records, you might hear a similar theme pop up over three records, like for instance, what started off as "I" became "Imitosis." So there are, like, these themes that are very fertile for improvisation and they generate more ideas than any record can contain.

And it's just like some little riff that gives you ultimate freedom with what goes on top of it. Those are the songs that I tend to do every night just because they give me that freedom. I don't really play jazz music anymore but I'm coming from that mentality. I just happen to be writing pop songs.

Didn't you grow up listening to jazz and classical?

I kind of grew up playing classical music, and then I discovered jazz when I was like eighteen or nineteen, especially the early stuff from the '30s and '40s. I was into so much stuff, it's hard to say where I'm coming from. Sometimes it feels like I'm a folk musician that's into oral traditions, where everything gets passed around by ear, and that feels natural to me.

Other times it's that restlessness of the kind of sophisticated jazz where you're never quite satisfied to just play the melody the same way twice. I sort of synopsize it like this: I grew up playing classical music, so those are my roots and sometimes the themes that come out of me, but I have nothing to do with the classical culture.

When you play live, there's usually room for improvisation. Do you see approaching your live shows as a jazz player might?

Interview continues on the next page. Sure. If I've written a song that has too many things that are tying me down before I can take it live, I have to deconstruct it to make it playable. It just doesn't feel right to play the same thing every night. Also with the looping that I do live, it's a very malleable thing, especially at these shows where I'm playing solo. I don't really have to answer to anybody. I can do whatever I like. The looping can go off on all sorts of tangents and that just feels right to me.

On this current tour, you're just playing solo?

Yeah. I'm kind of not really not touring to promote a record. Performing live is just part of my whole process, so I can't just go cold turkey when I don't have a record out. Then playing reminds me of who I am and who I sound like and just kind of reconnects me to what I do. It helps me finish writing songs. I like to play songs in front of audience that are half finished. It kind of tells me which way to go with it. I guess I get kind of rush from that blush of embarrassment when you're almost falling on your face.

There's also that instant feedback too, which must be nice in some regards.

Yeah, and I like to believe that audience can tell when you're on a limb -- at least I tell myself that. I like to believe that they can sense it. You can tell when an idea is fresh. I'm just trying to almost cultivate perilous situations to make sure happens.

I'm sure with the loop pedals you can have all sorts of things happen with those.

Yeah. People ask -- it looks like when I'm up there by myself doing it that it's a lot of work -- "How do you keep track of it all?" It's just like failure is part of the show. It's a pretty good racket. It's kind of like haphazard cooking, like you forgot to put some ingredient in and like, "Aw shit!" And then you toss it in there at the last second. You're just sort of stumbling around using your intuition and you hope it all comes out alright, but it's kind of just as interesting to watch that process as it is and having the satisfaction of hearing that hook or whatever.

Have you ever tried anything that's straight improv on stage by yourself?

Well, like where I don't know what's going to happen when I start, like total blank slate?


I have parts of the set that are dedicated to that kind of thing. I know that's it's probably going to be in G and that this other loop is going to be in this key. But that's about it. There definitely are. And on Useless Creatures there's a thing called "Barn Tapes," which I attempt to simulate live. It's nearly impossible to do because it's like twelve different loops segueing and overlapping with each other.

Was that the song where you're using basically every note in the twelve-tone scale?

Yeah. More or less. There's a tonal center to each one. So, the idea was that I was trying to create is like an analog keyboard where there's a tape loop for every note on the keyboard, but every note would be this static loop where every note has the scale in it as well. We didn't go ahead and make a keyboard out it; we just used the mixing board as a keyboard.

It was all coming off fifteen-year-old tape stock that was degrading and then we were also manipulating the tape machine and getting it to feel like it was shutting down. I do the best I can to get a sense of that live. It's also kind of cool to do that at these outdoor shows because it's very horizonless. That kind of music makes sense in an open-air type of situation because it has this sense of time slowing down.

But for someone who also writes three-minute pop songs, you have to be in the right state of mind to be patient enough to assume that your audience is patient enough to hang with that. There's always that healthy conflict of you know, that brevity, that conciseness and that indulgence. Ever since I started writing music there's been that tension.

With more of your pop stuff, is there ever that challenge to make it concise, to get it down to three or four minutes? And do you edit your lyrics as well?

You know, it's funny that I've said that writing lyrics is difficult. But once I start writing them, it's hard to shut up. And also within that three-and-half minute song, getting in all the lyrics and to also be able to indulge the playing part of it, then it's tough. I've either -- as with Noble Beast and Useless Creatures -- segregated the two, or lately, I've been trying to bring them back together.

A lot of the new material has some really wild soloing in it, but right up next to it will be really straight ahead-type song. So I thought it was time to see if I could bring them back together again. They tend to come together live because I feel like I can make a song six or seven minutes long live. But on a record, it's tough. I've got some songs like "Armchairs" -- that's like six-and-a-half minutes long -- that I sometimes wonder if it would been more successful as a song if I had cut more lyrics from that.

When I listen to songwriters, I listen for moments. When I watch films, in my favorite films, I'm thinking of a scene. I rarely think of the whole narrative arc of the piece. The thing that really affects me is that one line that just distills everything and really touches you. I think in songwriting, even more than film making or writing, you can really get away with that. Find a line that really distills everything and just repeat it. That's what a lot of pop writers do. I think it's cool that I'm nine records into this and I haven't figured it out yet.

Have you started recording your new material?

Oh yeah. It's almost in the can and ready to go. It'll be out early next year.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon