The History Boy
The Largo at the Coronet is a 130-seat theatre in Los Angeles which first opened in 1947, making it something of an ancient landmark in Hollywood terms.
In its opening year the venue hosted the world premiere of the English language version of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo Galilei, and ever since it has held a reputation for staging challenging and provocative new work by musicians and comedians alike. The place has become something of a second home for Andrew Bird so it’s here that he’s come to debut his twelfth solo album, which he’s given the waggishly self-aggrandising title My Finest Work Yet.
As he proceeds to play the album in full to an audience that includes the likes of Carrie Brownstein it’s clear there’s a measure of truth to that swaggering name. My Finest Work Yet is a lush and melodic collection of songs which showcase Bird’s playful lyricism and virtuoso whistling, but they’re also shot through with nuanced political thought. This is picked up on by the show’s host, the actor John C. Reilly, who is a friend and fan of Bird’s. During a short Q&A Reilly finds himself imploring Bird to elaborate on some of his mythical and historical references. “What exactly,” he asks, “was going on in Catalonia in 1936?”
A month later I’m sat in Andrew Bird’s kitchen at his chic, minimalist home in the leafy LA neighbourhood of Los Feliz. I’ve come to find out more about why, at the age of 45, he’s made his first overtly political album. Before that, he’s making us coffee. He whistles while he works. Of course he does.
BEST FIT: Did you approach writing My Finest Work Yet differently to how you’ve written records in the past?
ANDREW BIRD: I think I did. There's a sense of urgency to it. Usually it’s just me digging around in my subconscious, navel-gazing and playing with words. This felt a little more focused.
Because of the political climate you were working in?
Yes. There are things we're not talking about, as a people, that we need to talk about. The question for me was how to raise those things without being too heavy and without losing people. Right after the 2016 election I felt a certain pressure. Patti Smith made a call to arms! We've all got a duty as artists, but acting out of duty is not usually how it works.
It took a minute for that idea to settle in and for the panic to subside. I knew I wanted to try and get beyond the choir, or at least galvanise the choir. Also, I think your surroundings affect you no matter how you think about it consciously. What you're consuming throughout the day and what you're seeing or observing is going to come out in your work. How could it not? It would be conspicuous if it didn't.
This is your tweflth solo record. Do you see your albums as inhabiting distinct eras?
For sure. Up until the age of 26 I was still in music fan mode. I'd walk into a record store and think: ‘What can I learn today? What can I discover and learn from and emulate or expand upon?’ Then at a certain point I kind of exhausted those things. That's when I started, in maybe my late twenties, wiping the slate clean and seeing what I really had to say. That was the Bowl of Fire era and then Weather Systems was the turning point. Armchair Apocrypha and Noble Beast was the era of learning my limits. People were finally starting to come to shows, so then I didn't want to let it go! I didn't say no to anything and almost killed myself, because it was a long road to get to that point. That was like six records in. After soundcheck I would literally go and get a coffee or a bite to eat then come back to the venue and be like: 'Oh shit, who's playing tonight?' I am! Those people are coming to see my show. I couldn't believe they were finally coming.
Since then my records have kind of gone from trying to do something a little more produced to then doing something scrappy as a reaction to that. After that I’d try to sculpt something more, then I’d go back to the scrappy thing. With this one, I was like: 'How can I finally take everything I've learned about what I'm good at and capture it as best I can?' I know that performing live is key. I’ve been trying to close that gap between the live performance feeling so ecstatic and awesome to then the deconstructed song in the studio feeling so at sea. I'm trying to deconstruct it and put it together. It's not as simple as just popping in the studio with your band, putting up some mics and hoping you capture something.
It would be nice if it were that simple.
It would be nice if it were, but it isn’t. So with this album I took all these things that I value on records and spent a good amount of time preparing. I've learned that I'm good leading up to the performance, and then after that I lose my mind. So how can I make everything up to the performance the thing? Post is no good. I don't like mixing. I don't like knob twiddling. I get impatient about having to spend three days trying to get the sounds just right. I had to be patient to get musicians in a room playing and discovering and listening to each other and capturing that to tape. That was the thing I finally wanted to crack because we did that with Break It Yourself in my barn in Illinois. That was all live too, but that was a little more scrappy. This is, you know, a fine piece of work, of engineering and performing.
You lived in that barn for a while, right?
Yes, and I wouldn't be making the music I make now without that period. I’ve had it since 2001. It’s just a classic Midwestern barn, built in the 1890s, full of hay and racoon shit. All I did when I got it was to go about with a local carpenter making it livable. It came from the fact that I’d had this conversation with the guy who runs The Hideout, a bar in Chicago which was our home base. He said: 'We love having you here in Chicago man, but really this is the point where you need to move to New York or LA.' So that's the point where I moved to a barn! There's a time when you need to put yourself in a deprivation chamber to find out what you really have going on. You don't even bring your records with you. Loneliness and boredom can be awesome; not for a great expanses of time, but for a period in your life there's a time to do that.
Did you record this album there?
No. Break It Yourself was the only record I did beginning to end there. I thought it was gonna be a place where I was gonna make records but it really turned into a place where I just spent a lot of time alone writing and experimenting. I go back every summer for a couple of weeks with the family. The mice usually take it over, and the racoons sometimes find a way in, and snakes. Other people have inhabited it since I was there. My brother was there. He's an electrical engineer so it was full of like, oscillators. And my mom turned it into an art gallery for her work. So it's mostly a gallery.
The opening track on the album is called “Sisyphus”. Was that because you’re a fan of Camus or because you’re a fan of Greek mythology?
I kind of backed into all that stuff, to be honest. I wasn't thinking of that at first. I was thinking about 'precipice'. I liked the idea of being on the edge of a massive shift or change, and I liked the word 'precipice'. There's not many words that rhyme with 'precipice'. I thought: 'Sisy-phis'! I started thinking about that myth, and how it relates to me personally, and to the world at large. Over time it became this song about the individual versus the group. How does abandoning this futile task affect the people around you? When does your struggle stop serving you?
I have some tendencies, because of the way I was raised, to see things not as a means to an end but to see the means, the struggle, as the end in itself. The melody to “Sisyphus” was originally the melody to “Bloodless”. Then the piano melody kind of nudged out my melody, but I like that [he whistles the melody] so I just put it on “Sisyphus”. I like how those ideas can be unfaithful. They can go and hang out on another song. It ends up creating a real album that way."
“Sisyphus” and “Bloodless” become siblings, of a sort.
Yeah, exactly. If you think there's a common thread going through all these songs it's because they might have actually been the same song at one point. I like that fluid state early on. I like playing them in front of people before they're done. To me, that's really important, that lack of preciousness about what you're working on. Some people don't want to let it go until they think it's ready.
You mean just playing it to close friends?
No, somewhere like the Largo. I want to play it to strangers. Something about playing that room, where you're playing with comedians as well, means you can kind of adopt a similar posture. You can be like: ‘I don't know folks, it could go this way. This is just what I'm thinking about.’ I'm not pretending that I’ve got all the answers.
The cool thing about the Largo is that that's what a lot of the comedians are doing. They've got a pile of notes on a stool and they're just like: 'Yeah, that didn't work.' It's a very forgiving audience, so that helps, but it's a pretty extraordinary place to have. It's important to have that kind of open forum feeling. Not that people are telling you what to do with your songs exactly, but I've done shows there where I'll try out a new song and before the song is over I break into a cold sweat. Then you know it's heading to the graveyard.
There’s a great line in “Sisyphus” that goes: “History forgets the moderates”. Have you been watching a lot of TV news by any chance?
Well, yeah. We're seeing things go to extremes because that's what gets people's eyeballs, or gets people talking or makes people outraged. Extremism sells ads. There's very little sensible conversation going on. The 24 hour news feed and social media is a turbocharged, amped up version of what's been going on for centuries. It's just speeding it up and then boiling it down to a couple of soundbites. I don’t think it's anything new, it's just the way it's being delivered that’s scary.
Finding historical precedence for the times we’re living in seems like something of a theme on this record.
That’s because if you go with current events you lose people. I’m trying to find something from recent history or mythology that’s not too obscure but also not too real, at the same time. If it’s a little removed then I think you can maybe get some perspective.
Is that why you refer to Catalonia in 1936 on “Bloodlust”?
I read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia a few years ago and it really stuck with me. I started thinking about it again after 2016. It's not that I was thinking about Franco as Trump or anything, it I was more that I was thinking about what that book is about, which is how he ran into trouble with the factional left. Between the communists and the anarchists, he was with the wrong group and he almost got done in by one of them. He's pointing out just how they were played, and also how they’re bungling the whole thing because can't get their shit together to put up a united front against fascism.
I can't think of a more appropriate cautionary tale for what's going on now. Look at the number of Democrats who are running for President. Obama said we're looking at a circular firing squad. I like that expression.
That song has another great line on it: “Well, the best lack all conviction, and the worst keep sharpening their claws."
That one came in a bit later. It's a mutation of a Yeats line from 'The Second Coming'. Every time I sing it I think: 'Is this really true?' But sometimes you've just gotta power through with a point. I can't say that I honestly believe that it's that black and white.
Was that part of your motivation to make this record more political than you’ve ever done in the past?
Yes, but I also knew that if I didn't make it something you could whistle or sing along with then there isn’t much point. Rage underscored with rage is not gonna help. I had this moment where I was talking to a family member who 'consumes different media' to me. I was talking about the risk that Trump would not abdicate or concede if he lost. This family member was like: 'Where are you getting your information? That's what we thought Obama was going to do.' Like, really? That was a moment where I was like: 'Wow, somebody is making a lot of money off of these two separate narratives. We're being played.
Are you hopeful for the future of the country?
Yeah! I mean, the album is quite hopeful sounding, although it does end on a not-so-hopeful note. The last song, “Bellevue Bridge Club”, is actually my favorite song on the record because it took the most effort to write. It always felt like the waving-from-the-back-of-the-train song. We've been through this war together and now we're the walking wounded, content with a boring life of playing bridge. This record wouldn't exist if I wasn't hopeful. I never thought that it does any good to believe that vast swathes of the population are beyond hope, or that you can't have a real conversation with them. I don't think it does any good to think that, but I also honestly believe it's not true.
I used to think of it as the 'Titanic factor'. When that movie came out I thought it was such a crappy movie, but so many people thought it was the most wonderful thing. Does that mean that those people are lost to us? Or does it just means that they they bought it? It doesn't mean that they're not capable of more. I think we're all more or less dealt the same cards as far as intelligence goes. So ultimately I have faith in humanity.
It’s not just Trump that you allude to on this record. “Manifest” brings in the environmental crisis as well.
I started writing that one a long time ago. I remember overhearing a guy explaining to someone that: 'Oil is like the blood of the Earth, man! Once you take all the blood out, the Earth dies!' I thought: ‘That's kind of fuzzy thinking there, guy!’ The earth is under no obligation to support life. It's just that we have a good thing, or had a good thing going. Then afterwards to my surprise I did find myself thinking about what he was saying. It's like the cycle of life. Even after things die there's still energy contained in them. There's still life energy contained in that thing and it gets fossilized over time. We pull it out of the ground to take what's left of that thing's life, use it to drive a combustion engine and it escapes like a ghost. Then it gets trapped in the atmosphere. If you think about it that way then it's pretty poetic, and frightening at the same time. I wanted to write a song that lays that out there. I started with the first line: “I’m coming to the edge of the widest canyon.” I was thinking about those Spanish explorers coming up from the south towards the Grand Canyon. Were they awestruck or were they just thinking: 'Oh shit, how do we get around this?' That turned into the manifest destiny concept of: 'This world is ours to be taken and claimed and exploited'.
That thinking dies hard in the American identity. It’s like guns. It’s a little scary to me that there is so much American identity wrapped up in guns. It's just this thing that throws a projectile through the air that can kill people, right? That's all it is. That same identity is attached to fossil fuels. Someone has a vanity plate on their Hummer that says: 'Fossil Fuels'. I actually saw that here in LA. There have been stories about charging stations for electric cars getting vandalized in certain rural places because they see it as 'fucking do gooders'. That's the new enemy, and it's all just symbolism. It's not real. It's all just identity shit.
At what point did you decide that you were going to call this record My Finest Work Yet?
I went through something like 100 different possible titles and they all seemed pretentious and dumb. I thought, after all these records, let's just call it as I see it! Among my friends and the people I work with it started off as an inside joke. I've gotta call these songs something. Lately those working titles where I'm just kind of making fun of myself are what stick.”
Was it the title that lead you to pastiche Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat for the album cover?
Yeah, I was trying to find an image that played off the title. I picked up a book called Necklines, which is a great title for something about the French Revolution. It was all about Jacques-Louis David and his work and where he was in that conflict. Not exactly on the right side of history, as it turns out, and nor was Marat. All that aside, I saw the image and I thought: 'Oh, the suffering poet on his deathbed, or in his deathbathtub, penning his final words.' It captured this uber-myth of the suffering poet. That's how I saw it, and I thought most people would see it. Then I read a little more about the history of it and that seemed apropos as well. Marat was a poet who was aligned with Robespierre. He kind of had a hand in the Terror, to some degree. He did a bit of propaganda to whip people up. David was a friend of his. There was a young woman who came to assassinate him but posed as someone who needed a favor. So he's holding the note that she brought before she stabbed him in the bathtub. He really was suffering. He had a terrible skin disease, that's why his head is wrapped. He was always in pain. We recreated all those details, like the bathtub and the knife on the floor. I’m using Marat to make fun of myself, basically.
You’re playing the Barbican in London on 13 June. Will you be playing My Finest Work Yet in full?
Yes we will, which I remember I did last time I played the Barbican as well. I played Break It Yourself, which I don't think worked as well top to bottom. But trust me, this record works! We play side A, then on the side break we play some older tunes that kind of help balance things out, then we proceed with side B. I'm kind of bookending the show with these classic jazz crooning tunes, just little short bits like classic Cole Porter things. For some reason that feels right, although I don't know why.
As we were saying about the whistling on “Sisyphus” and “Bloodless”, this is an album that hangs together well so I guess it makes sense to play it in full.
It does. A big part of my job is sequencing, whether that’s doing the setlist or sequencing an album. There are so many variables. Sometimes we'll leave a little room for a spontaneous improvisation between songs. I love segues, and I love leaving a little room to see what the room likes tonight. Maybe that's what those jazz tunes are for. They can go in all sorts of directions.