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Making a name for yourself is hard to do in a time where new bands are constantly emerging, begging for the spotlight and labeling themselves with a genre. Andrew Bird, whose first album came out in 1996, has worked diligently not only to come up with a trademark sound, but to defy simple stereotypes. “I think we’re beyond genres now,” said the singer, songwriter, violinist, and whistler when he stopped by WERS for an in studio performance that would show the man most definitely knows what he’s doing.
Bird, joined by band-mates Jeremy Ylvisaker, Martin Dosh, and Alan Hampton, began his set with “Eyeoneye,” the single from his most recent album Break It Yourself. He turned his head as he sang the words like he was trying to loosen his neck. The track sounded less noisy than the recorded version, his whistling clear and violin tangy, and sped up nicely towards the end. “The music [in ‘Eyeoneye’] had to fight against the lyrics a little bit,” Bird said. “I thought it should have a graininess to it that you hear on those old late 70s, early 80s, New York stuff like Modern Lovers, Jonathan Richman… So that took six or seven different rewrites. Every time I tried to make it prettier, it got too sappy and romantic. We had to keep it really raw.”
Almost all of Break It Yourself was recorded with that intention – to grasp a natural sound – and was done as casual as he’s ever done it before. “We didn’t intent to make a record,” Bird said, “but I hoped we would.” The songs were recorded in two sessions, about a year apart, in Bird’s barn. “We didn’t have the ‘right’ amps plugged in or were pristinely like ‘Okay, here we go guys… we’re going to finally get this tape’. It was just off the cuff. And that’s what it needed.”
Once he started whistling further on in his solo career, Bird found it cut through and got people’s attention. “If it was simply the kind of sitting on the dock of the bay type of whistling, I wouldn’t use it as much, but I find it has sort of an operatic sound in an ambient way,” said Bird. “It’s a textural thing, too. The violin’s wood grange, mid-range-y, and you loop that and have a lot of it – that’s the wood and the earth. The whistle and the glockenspiel is the glass. It’s just a different texture that compliments the other stuff.” Where he learned how to whistle, however, is still a bit hazy. “I was so young I don’t remember myself,” said Bird. “My mom says I sounded like the birds in the forest, but I think that’s a little too cute. I don’t believe it.”
Next they played “Give It Away,” the opening upbeats and odd rhythmic pattern endearing and light before making way for Andrew Bird’s gentle vocals. It didn’t take long for them to hop back into the jazzy jam they opened, a song that bounces between sounds. “The thing I’m most proud of [about the new songs] is that they capture an honesty of how we play as a band: wild solos, we’re feeling our way through the songs,” said Bird. “We’re not going for the perfect take.” The group establish themselves as musicians in that they don’t need to slave away in the draft room. “I like that there are wild solos right next to very grounded lyrics,” Bird said. “We made sure they would be fun to play live. That’s key.”
Andrew Bird closed the performance with “Fatal Shore,” holding all the notes out with a subtle power and aching, like he was unwilling to let go of a memory. Although the quiet track seems like it’s written around the lyrics, Bird says that’s not how he writes his songs. “I’m not the kind of songwriter that writes poetry and then strums some chords. It’s hard to say where it all coalesces, but a lot of it’s going on at the same time and it all comes together.”
Part of what keeps Andrew Bird focused during shows is his stuffed sock monkey. The monkey rests onstage at every show, smiling behind Bird as he plays. “When I started doing shows where he wasn’t there or forgot to bring him in, it just didn’t feel right,” said Bird. “When you’re in a different town every night, it’s good to have some constant companionship.” Regardless of how important he is to Bird, the stuffed animal is nameless. “It seems inappropriate to give him a name, I don’t know why. He’s just Sock Monkey.”
Sixteen years after his first album was released, it’s clear that Andrew Bird has far surpassed just making a name for himself. His fan base continues to grow, his sound expands without being too drastic, and he’s one of the most well-known whistlers in the world. What keeps him intrigued in music is spontaneity, something he believes goes overlooked. “It’s pretty lacking in the indie rock realm. A lot of music feels like it’s going more off the script than what I would prefer,” Bird said. “You can tell that we’re in the moment and kind of pulling things together and letting go of things; that creates a connection with the audience.” That’s why Andrew Bird’s performances, including his stop at WERS, never disappoint and never bore. His name is one that will rightfully last beyond his lifespan (and probably Sock Monkey’s, too).