Andrew Bird is one of those guys who make you glad God created the telephone tape recorder. Okay, so maybe it was just some wonk at Radio Shack. But see, Bird is witty, eloquent and full of fine little anecdotes. But he speaks so quietly, that without that little machine turned up to ten, this page would look like an interview with Marcel Marceau. Still, Bird has much to quietly crow about. Even with gems such as Break It Yourself and Noble Beast under his belt, his brand new disc, Are You Serious, may just be the best thing this singer-songwriter has ever done. In his modest, wry way, Bird even seems to agree with that assessment.
At first listen, Are You Serious sounds like the guy’s most streamlined, straight-ahead album ever. Which would imply it was all just written and laid down on the, uh, fly, right? Well, no. Take the opener, “Capsized,” an atypical track for Andrew Bird in that it’s so righteously funky, boasting a vocal attack that sounds like he’s channeling Bill Withers. Remarkably, this tune went through years of changes before finally arriving at Funkytown.
“The way the tune ended up was not originally what I was going for,” says the pleasant, even-keeled Bird. “I’ve been playing it in one form or another for almost 12 years. I even played the song once where I’d made the pizzicato loop with a West African vibe and showed my band the loop to give them an idea of how I heard it. But then, one time I did a show solo and [producer] Mitchell Froom came and said, ‘Man, I can really hear where this could go. But what you’ve been doing are these 8th note pizzicato loops. They’re evocative and interesting. But when you add drums to it, that’s where it seems to get a bit muddled. What you need to explore here is half-time feel.”
So Bird did. And thus did Mr. Froom bring forth the funk.
If there’s a fresh new feel to this record, it’s not an accident. As with the specifics of Froom’s suggestions, Bird was in the mood for some “real concrete advice” when it came to recording and arranging. And he got it, all right. From another world-class producer.
“I ended up working with Tony Berg and we did tons of preproduction,” he says. “Tony is a real social animal and loves bringing people together who might not normally meet. He also brought some really interesting, detailed ideas to making the record.”
The seeming straightforwardness of Are You Serious seems to indicate that Bird’s new disc was made as a quick, easygoing affair. But such was not the case.
“Oh, there were months of torture,” says Bird, only half-joking. “The preproduction began about a year ago and we did seven days of tracking at Sound City. Then there was another eight or nine months of total self-doubt.”
Then there was Fiona Apple, who played a nice little part in the circuitous route of this wonderful recording.
“Tony calls this ‘casting,’ bringing in people like a good director. I’d never met Fiona, but we had a lot of friends in common,” he explains. “So (Club Largo owner) Mark Flanagan and Tony suggested she come in and she really threw herself into the song, ‘Left-Handed Kisses.’ At first, it was the two of us in Tony’s studio, singing into the same mic. And we were still on 15-track tape and had one track left. At one point, in frustration, Fiona looked at Tony and said, ‘What kind of fucked up way is this to make a record?’ Tony got ashen and said, ‘You’re right.’ We then took some time, so we could do multiple takes. She brought a real weight to the song (which is sort of a staccato lover’s argument). It has the complications of a short play, where you really have to think before you sing. And Fiona did that beautifully.”
I mention that the album is also teeming with memorable hooks. Not always something you associate with Bird’s otherwise gorgeous songs. How intentional was this?
“I’ve got ideas for days for hooks,” he says. “And sometimes you look back at certain songs and think, ‘Man, if I’d just pushed that a little farther or been a bit more ruthless in the editing, that could’ve been a hit.’ Sometimes, it really is just in the mixing or the mastering with certain songs.
Focused artist that he is, Bird does not seem too forlorn about all this. In fact, he sounds like a man who may have just made his best, most riveting album ever. And the hits? Well, he seems to say, ‘That part is out of my control. I guess we’ll just have to see what happens.’