Whistle while you work
Andrew Bird / The slow cadence of musician Andrew Bird’s commanding voice is enough to capture anyone’s attention from across the sea. In a phone interview with the Weekly from Hong Kong, where Bird is on his first musical tour of Asia, the respected multi-instrumentalist and whistler discussed the changing political and arts climate in Asia, and his own future musical endeavors, ahead of his first appearance in Hawaii.
You have a reputation of being aware of relevant issues.
Honestly, I’ve been kind of out of the loop the last month, being on the other side of the world. I’m actually paying attention to China now… when I’m traveling, it’s just about paying attention to what’s going on around me. And I’m kind of a history–I wouldn’t call myself a buff, I don’t like that word–I’m just interested in the dynamics over here.
As an American artist, what are the reactions you’ve received?
So far I’ve just been in Singapore and Hong Kong, which are pretty Anglo. The crowds have been mostly local. But I’m interested in the culture over here as far as individuality–the different values: Why would you go off and do your own thing or distinguish yourself in anyway? In that, is creativity still possible? Or does it just take a different form? Those are the things I’m curious about.
I lived in Hong Kong in 2002 and couldn’t find any indie shows.
No. They’re really trying to create an infrastructure here [in Hong Kong] and in China. I guess governments don’t realize how important that is to the health of a place.
The arts in general? Just music?
Yeah, they might think–OK we’ll fund films or something that is maybe more tangible. But live music is an ephemeral thing, so it’s kind of hard.
What’s your fan reception been like [in Asia]?
I was really surprised that I drew almost 1,500 people in Singapore, and it was a nice government-funded arts center. It was much different than a show in the states. Really young kids, enthusiastic, pretty sweet kids. I talked to them afterward and they all made little objects to give me. It’s this weird ritual after shows, if I have the energy to do signings, where I ask their name and write it down. And then I sign my name about 250 times [laughs] in rapid succession. But it’s like, OK, there’s 20 people named Natalie here in Singapore. And never [before now] has anyone said to me, “You’ve really got to come to Jakarta. I came all the way from Jakarta.” Or, “I came from Manila, you really should come to the Philippines.” Those are things you don’t quite expect.
I think Beijing has a hardcore music movement now. Maybe you’ll run into that there.
We’re playing Beijing with a Mongolian band. Apparently a hard-drinking, folk-singing band. So that should be cool. I don’t know if there is much of a future in China as far as performing…there is a huge shift going on in the world and China’s been creating these tangible goods, manufacturing. What have we got anymore to offer? I don’t know what I’m saying with that. They’re still ideas.
You’ve said Useless Creatures is an “indulgent” album for you. Are there other types of albums that you’re looking forward to making?
What I say about Useless Creatures is that if I kept refining those things, they would become songs with lyrics. And they’d become much more carefully sculpted and considered. But these are just a lot of instrumental ideas in their raw state…I’ve been doing some of that stuff in these solo shows. Like what I call “The Barn Tapes,” which is this experimental environmental kind of static, glogs of sound that I manipulate. Not necessarily giving the listener the pop and punch of “Nervous Tic Motion” that has a consistent motif…most of my stuff does ask a little more of the listener. And the live shows ask you to almost participate. Not that it’s super challenging music. [But] I’m always riding that line. I like the challenge of writing a three-minute pop song. I find that engaging. But at what cost is the brevity to some of the more interesting stuff it takes for more patience? As far as future things I want to do, I envision making this record that’s minimal and lulling and very patient. But as soon as I start writing lyrics I can’t seem to shut up. There are pop songs that only have a couple sentences repeated over and over. What’s wrong with that? But once I get started I feel like I’ve got to create a beginning, middle and end to some degree.
What do you have in store for the Honolulu show?
I’ve been doing mash-ups of my own songs. I try to remind myself when you play 200 shows a year, you have to keep the music alive. I go back to when I conceived of a song, which is an exciting time. I’ve got a song called “Sweet Matter,” which is a mix of “Dark Matter” and “Sweet Bread.” When I first wrote “Dark Matter,” it was actually a song about the implications of eating the heart or mind of an animal. I do a vastly different version of “Happy Birthday.” I like it when some theme will pop up in different songs throughout the set. This song is only a couple of shades away from this song.
Do people want you to teach them how to whistle?
You can’t really teach someone how to whistle. How do you reach inside their mouth and put their tongue in the right place? It’s too invasive I think. The whole point of whistling is that it’s second nature and intuitive.
Your song has been used on This American Life and you’re a blogger for the New York Times. Have you thought about doing more with other media?
I’ve thought about it. I don’t write a lot unless I’m asked to. I don’t really like sitting still very long. When I was asked to do the New York Times thing I was like, I’m never really going to write my memoirs, I might as well just take this as a challenge to write a little bit. The next thing I know I’m playing a show at Amherst or something and they put me on the bill as a cultural commentator. Like, oh that’s dubious. I don’t know if I really want that title. I’m [also] interested in getting more into storyboards, doing more episodic ideas. Taking a song and unfolding it into a 25-minute episode based on that song, expanding on things. There’s a lot in every song that is not obvious.