Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Andrew Bird sings ‘balls-out’ for UW

As a celebrated live performer who's played at large festivals like Bonnaroo, Andrew Bird is comfortable in front of crowds. During a self-imposed three-year period of complete isolation, he got comfortable in his own head.

Now, he's letting loose and enjoying it.

This summer, Bird has been biking across swaths of southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, reading more than he has in years (a historical account of Queen Victoria's military campaigns, at the moment of our conversation) and spending time in his barn.


Currently, he's on the road for a fall tour behind his latest record, Armchair Apocrypha, which Bird said is a departure from his previous work.

"[Armchair Apocrypha] has a little more of the live dynamics to it," Bird said in a phone interview with The Badger Herald. "It's not so carefully measured — it's a little more of a wild ride."

But when Bird plays the Wisconsin Union Theater tonight, don't expect everything to sound like the record; Bird guarantees a unique performance every time.

"If I finish a show, and I feel like something cool didn't happen to differentiate it from the night before, I feel disappointed," he said. "I like to put in something new. The audience can sense that, when you're taking risks, and they start to root for you."

Bird said he enjoys life on the road for its sense of purpose and claims he spends every waking moment gearing up for the night's show.

"It's like you're administering an IV to yourself all day," he said. "Sugar, fluids, caffeine." (Later in the interview, the pouring of a large cup of coffee briefly drowns out Bird's chatter.)

Onstage, Bird employs a madcap arsenal of instruments and devices, including violin, guitar and glockenspiel. He is perhaps most technically adept at the violin (his performance degree specialized in it), but Bird also possesses a keening tenor, not to mention a prodigious whistling ability that puts the man behind "The Andy Griffith Show" theme to shame.

He's joined by fellow conspirators Martin Dosh on percussion and Jeremy Ylvisaker on bass and backup vocals, but creative credit should also go to the array of pedals the three use to record and playback sound live. Bird often begins a song with a sound loop that is in turn looped by Dosh, and so forth, until the musicians begin to manipulate their soundscapes and bring the whole thing roaring to a rousing finish.

"It's crazy complicated," Bird said of the onstage technology. "Amazingly enough, it doesn't bog us down."

The musical pyrotechnics lend an added dimension to Bird's indie rock sound, which is steeped in strident pop melodies, whirring string counterpoints and lyrics best pondered in a coffeehouse, laptop and latte in hand.

In fact, given Bird's penchant for challenging himself to work obscure references into his songs, it's tempting to write off songs like "Scythian Empires" as another example of the egotistical charlatanry of a singer-songwriter striving for meaning.

But this late-blooming yet upbeat cut off Armchair Apocrypha is actually rooted in a teenage identity crisis that manifested itself in a deliberately esoteric obsession.

"I wasn't fitting in at all, so I wanted to find the most neglected corner of history and absorb it," Bird said.

Although he still considers history to be more exciting than fiction, Bird has outgrown his empires phase.

"I'm not as deadly serious as I was as a teenager," Bird said.

The artist has come a long way even since a few years ago, he said, thanks to the three years he spent as a recluse in a barn on a piece of ancestral land outside Chicago, where he contemplated whether he wanted to become a solitary creature or rejoin the community. It helped him come to a "more honest place" with his music, Bird said, but it wasn't fun.

"If you spend a lot of time in your own head, you find out quickly who or what your demons are," he explained.

His isolation proved to him being alone was less romantic than he had thought, but it also opened the door to musical experimentation.

Now he goes into his head for catchy melodies rather than personal demons. "For the last three records, I've just listened to the music that's in my head," he said.

On the latest record, Bird has taken pains not to indulge the quietly compassionate singer-songwriter within. "I want to resist that kind of hushed, whispered, confessional sound," Bird said. "I enjoy going balls-out, singing to the back of the room."

Audience members can expect songs from throughout Bird's discography tonight, and maybe even a few new ideas or half-finished tunes, he said.

"I just kind of thrive on that slight flush of embarrassment from showing something new to the audience that night."

Bird will perform at the Wisconsin Union Theater tonight at 8 p.m. Student tickets are sold out, and general admission is $14-21.

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