Think you can pigeonhole Andrew Bird because he was violinist for the zany, alt-swing band Squirrel Nut Zippers in the late ’90s? Think again.
This Chicago indie-folk hipster has worn more musical skins than Moby, and it’s quite possible to see them all within a 10-minute span of sonic brilliance in which Bird might pluck his violin, then loop the sound to create a layered effect, strum an acoustic guitar, sing an aching country song, and even whistle like Otis Redding on the dock of the bay.
Bird hits the Fillmore Miami Beach on Monday, Oct. 8 — his first performance down here — in support of his latest album Hands of Glory and his upcoming release 'Break It Yourself'. He talked to Miami.com about what we can expect from the show.
What will we hear Monday night?
There’s four of us onstage, but I tend to start and finish solo. I mostly play violin and do some looping with that and send it through different speakers, which spin and create a fairly full sound. I manipulate two different loops, like one will be pizzicato and the other one will be bowed and more ambient. Then I bring out my band, who I’ve been with for five or six years, and it starts to become a full-on rock-’n’-roll show. And then halfway through the set, we unplug everything and get around one mike and do stripped-down acoustic country-blues tunes. So the set goes from fairly massive-sounding stuff to pretty stripped-down. And it’s good because it keeps everybody on their toes.
You grew up loving country, blues, jazz and classical music. Was it difficult to unite those roots with the expectations of the pop or indie-rock worlds?
I was kind of oblivious to the expectations of the pop or indie worlds. I came to them fairly late and didn’t grow up with pop music, so I didn’t feel nostalgic about it. I just took the things that I thought were the best, like the craft, like writing a good song, the simplicity, directness, brevity. And really I didn’t try to merge the two. I didn’t really feel like I was a part of any scene.
How did you end up with the Squirrel Nut Zippers?
I met them at a festival in North Carolina when I was 20 or 21, and I was playing traditional Irish music and old-timey music, but I was into hot jazz and I was working on my first record, Music of Hair, which had some hot club-type stuff on it. So I gave them a cassette and they liked it and asked me to fill in for the trumpet player, who was not showing up for gigs. Not playing trumpet, but playing violin, more or less playing his parts. And that started a couple-year relationship with them. I was on the road with them when they started getting a lot of attention, like MTV was showing up at gigs. So it was a pretty weird time.
What about the whistling? Did that happen spontaneously, or was it a conscious choice?
I resisted it for the first couple of records, because I’m used to things being hard, and whistling is too easy and too casual. Like, I spent 20 years learning to play the violin, so why would I just … whistle? So there was a block initially. And also I thought it would be perceived a just whimsical and a turn-off. But now it would be odd not to whistle, because I do it from the moment I wake up. If I’m not sleeping or eating, I’m whistling. But not now, while we’re talking.
You started playing violin when you were 4. Do you remember why?
I was not a conscious human being when I started, so it wasn’t like I sat my parents down and told them this is something I feel I should be doing at age 4. But I wasn’t averse to it. I learned by ear and kind of molded into it, like you’re 8 years old and you can play as well as you need to. It wasn’t until I was 15 or 16 until I drew my whole identity into it. Otherwise it was just something I did every day. Even in music class in junior high I would get poor grades [laughs]. But then I’d come in and play a concerto for the class or something. It was just second nature.