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Andrew Bird on His Barn-Recorded New Album, Break It Yourself

andrewbirdmarch2012.jpgOver the past decade, Andrew Bird has remained one of music's most unique voices; combining densely composed baroque pop with the soaring melodies of indie rock grandeur. Bird's best work is marked by hyper-literate lyricism and beautifully intricate, rubbery compositions that showcase his classically trained background as well as his prolific talents in both the violin and guitar. For his twelfth album Break It Yourself (out March 6th on Mom + Pop), Bird decided to loosen the reins and record the album with his backing band almost entirely live to tape at his personal studio (located in an old barn on the banks of the Mississippi River in Western Illinois). The result is a warm collection of  lushly arranged songs that move away from the forced-solitude feel of Bird's last record Noble Beast, playing with the idea that, in his own words, "autonomy is overrated." The man himself took a moment to speak to us about the Break It Yourself recording experience, the unusually scientific subject matter in his lyrics, and the preparations that go into translating this robust album into an immersive live experience.

The recording of Break It Yourself emerged out what was supposed to be a week-long rehearsal with your band in your personal studio, and you ended up recording the majority of the album live to tape. Have you ever had a recording session like this before?

I haven't done it quite like this before, because [the band and I] were thinking we should get together for a week, lock down in the barn, and just jam together, which we never really give ourselves much chance to do until we're on stage. And I thought, while I'm at it, we're going to record it. I secretly hoped we'd get something good, but I didn't put that pressure on myself. But there was something about the band learning those songs and feeling their way through it, kind of instinctively, and going with their first ideas. You can feel that we're groping our way through to the end of these songs.

In terms of previous recording experiences, have you always put together songs first and brought it to the band to work through afterward or is that something specific to this recording session?

I've never really given the band this much influence on the sound. I let my original visions of the songs slide, because what was happening in the studio was just as cool, if not cooler.

Do you think that because the songs you write have fairly intricate compositions, working through the album like this with your band will aid in translating these songs live better than a normal rehearsal would?

Even when there are records that are more produced than this or put together one piece at a time with overdubs, we have to think, "who's going to play this part, or who's going to play that part." I never liked that process, thinking about how we were going to translate [the album] to the stage. I would usually just take the song and boil it down to its most basic elements. There was always a little bit of problem solving when you're dealing with live loops. Translating Break It Yourself live is a no-brainer, because we recorded it live. There is really only one song, "Orpheo Looks Back," that's going to be a little tricky because I did that one at the top by myself. It has weird time signatures, and there's no drum set on it, so it's like, "what does the drummer play?"

You can hear this warmer analog vibe on the album that you got from recording on the 8-track. Do you think those residual effects of the recording process, which can be more atmospheric and intangible, enhance a song in ways you couldn't know when you were writing it?

There are so many things that go into a recording, so you can't really give the tape all the credit. "Polynation" was actually recorded on my iPhone. But it got mixed to tape. But analog is kind of a religion that is questionable in regards to how much it really affects a sound when you do a blind taste test. But it's good to have a little bit of religion; something ceremonial about the process that helps you. The real thing that helped influence this record was the room, a big open barn with a wood ceiling, and the fact that we only had seven tracks, and no more. But the tape has something as well. We were using an old stock, and there is a bleed through, and there are all these other anomalies and imperfections on the tape you can hear through recordings...it's basically a straight up failure of technology, little things that people don't notice. But there are also times when the tempos kind of fluctuate a little bit [on the record due to the band playing these songs live], when we're listening to each other and trying to signal to each other what should happen next.  There are so many records these days that are made on a grid, and this record is leaning left and right.

Looking back at Noble Beast, critics characterized that album as a record painted by the idea of solitude. Do you think you're trying to get out of your head a little more in an attempt to move away from that idea of solitude on Break It Yourself?

For sure, you can almost say that the theme of the record is realizing that your pursuit of autonomy may be overrated. And its kind of a realization that happens half way through a lot of these songs. A switch gets flipped on in lot of these songs where in the first half I'm going down the dark path, and the second half there is some illumination, or re-ionization.

In terms of subject matter for your song writing, there are these scientific, and more specifically, biological motifs that keep reappearing in your songwriting, and they show up on this record in songs like "Desperation Breeds" and "Eyeoneye." Why do you find these machinations in nature compelling to explore in your writing?

Because I'm curious, I don't always like to get the answer but I like the question. I'm just curious about these things, like "Eyeoneye" started off with a conversation with a friend about this thing called a teratoma, which is a cancerous tumor where the cells start replicating other cells in the body, so you open up the tumor and there's teeth, and hair, and your body just starts going haywire. And there's something going on in this phenomenon, although rare, that's telling us what we're made of. And I like those kinds of ideas, the ones that aren't discussed very often in polite company, and they tell us something greater than just being a weird scientific phenomenon. It's something that can translate to the personal.

It also affords you to use this strange scientific language for song lyrics, with words that sound very interesting sonically, and it seems like you're even using them correctly.

Yeah I don't know if I use them correctly, but that's part of the fun. I haven't gotten any angry letters from scientists. I tend to get a lot of letters from scientists asking questions like "Did you mean this?" They're friendlier than you would expect. You'd expect the curmudgeons, the purists, who want all your data to be accurate, to come after me. But they haven't done that yet.

Photo by Cameron Wittig

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