Virgin **MOBILE** Festival Preview: Andrew Bird

He whistles, plays violin, plays glockenspiel ... and this Bird can sing.

(Programming Reminder: Post Rock will be blogging LIVE from Virgin Mobile Festival all weekend. Check in often on Saturday and Sunday for updates.)

Andrew Bird is just another one of those world-class whistling, sometimes glockenspieling former child prodigy violinists-turned-chamber pop stars. Seriously, the dude whistles like Brad Ziegler gets double plays. It's like he's hiding a theremin in his mouth. (Video proof below.) He's an interesting choice for a show the size of Virgin Mobile Festival. His long and winding songs are all about subtlety. On a day that includes performances by Kanye West, the Stooges, Nine Inch Nails, Lil Wayne and Stone Temple Pilots, Bird will certainly stick out.

After I saw you last May at the 9:30 club, I swore the next time you were in town it would be at a seated theater. But instead it's at a race track playing before Lil Wayne and Kanye West. How do you prepare for these big shows?
It's definitely a different performance than we do in a theater. The subtler things simply don't work. So you just try to embrace the broader gestures that make sense outside. There are a lot of things that are totally different. There's often times no wall, nothing to contain your sound. Every time I play a room, I do a bit of echo location and try to find the corners of the room. It changes how I play. But when you can see the horizon, there's limitless sky, it definitely changes the way you play and sing. In a way it's a little bit terrifying as to what it pulls out of you. Instead of singing I tend to ... it becomes more of a howl, I guess. My range definitely goes way up into the stratosphere.

You say the subtler things don't work, but when I think of your songs, it's a lot of little subtle things, whether it's a time shift or interesting instrumentation or certain lyrics...
There are still dynamics, but we have a real challenge to create those dynamics when you're just going for it the whole set. I don't mean to put a negative spin on it at all, I like having to adapt to different situations. And I do like what it pulls out of me. I know it keeps sounding negative but that howl that comes out of you - the first time I played at Red Rocks in Denver, a huge natural amphitheater, well, I play the violin and it's such a tiny instrument for such a huge place. And [because of] the adrenaline, I broke all the hairs on my bow trying to match the energy. But I think that's kind of fun.

(More after the jump.)

You make pretty intellectual music. Sorry if that sounds like a putdown.
If I heard that of another artist, I'd be a little skeptical, you know what I mean? (Laughs.) I mean, what's music for anyway? It's supposed to move you, it doesn't matter. That's how I feel about it. I guess the lyrics ... I'm just trying to amuse myself with the lyrics. I'm trying to keep myself entertained. If that means I use kind of strange, archaic words sometimes, that's what it takes. But honestly, the way I listen to music it has nothing to do with whether it's well-read or not.

You play more instruments than most people can probably name. Is there one that you've always wanted to tackle that you haven't gotten to yet?
Not really. I think I've done all the learning I need to do for a lifetime.

Do you have a favorite?
I just started playing guitar maybe five or six years ago. I play it like a violin. Just kind of a shot in the dark as to where notes are. I like it when an instrument remains mysterious, you don't know where everything is.

Most people start with the guitar, you kind of went backwards. Has that worked out for you?
It's pretty primitive and that's kind of refreshing. The violin I've been playing since I was 4. Even with the violin I resisted doing scales and knowing where everything is. To me all music, all instruments, should be like whistling, really. There are no frets, no keys. It's just direct, mainline, from your ear and your brain to the music you're making. There's no time for pretense. As soon as you pick up an instrument that has a geometry to it, it affects the kind of music you make. I like to keep it in a kind of liquid state.

The whistling - it sounds like you have a theremin in your mouth. How do you realize you have that skill?
I've done it my whole life and do it so casually and without thinking. Whereas the violin is really a difficult, painful instrument to master. And so I had it in my head that instruments were supposed to be hard. It shouldn't be that tossed off, like walking down the street whistling. So it took me a while to accept it as a valid way of making music. But I realized it could go beyond just a whimsical "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" thing. I'm making this new record and every song it comes down to, "OK, what's going to make this sound best?" And I'll try piano, violin, guitar, glockenspiel, whatever I've got in the arsenal. And the whistle wins almost every time, to the risk of almost overdoing it.

Yeah, do you ever feel like you'll be, like, The Whistling Dude?
(Laughs.) I don't know. There's worse things, I guess. For some reason I picture an old LP from the '60s of a guy in a cardigan. "Some of my favorite songs!"

Yeah, I see him, he has his hands in his pockets, looking up.
(Laughs.) Yeah. "The Whistling Guy." Every couple records you see people responding to one thing or another whether it's the style of music you're playing or the instruments you're playing and I give my audience more credit than just latching onto something like that.

When you were a kid did you do violin recitals and everything?
Yeah I did Suzuki from age 4 to 12 or 13.

Was that terrifying at all?
Strangely, no. I was a painfully shy kid in social situations but as soon as I was in front of class by myself I'd feel completely at ease.

Does that translate to playing in front of huge crowds now?
It's still true today. I'm a wreck until I get on stage. Then it's the universe I understand. I know what to do then. Every moment until then I'm awkward.

You've been doing music your whole life, so you've never sat in an office or anything like that?
No. I've had to take some gigs I'd rather forget. I've had quite a few years of struggling and trying to make end's meat as a musician and that's almost more dangerous than a soul-sucking office job. For what you love to really suck. I have this built in alarm that goes off when I'm in a situation where music is not being valued enough. I have an intense physical reaction. It just won't let me do it.

By David Malitz |  August 7, 2008; 11:12 AM ET Interviews , Virgin Festival
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Thanks for this interview. That Whistling Guy is such a class act. Won't make it to VMoFest, but I'm seeing him in Philly on Saturday instead! Woohoo!

Posted by: shf | August 7, 2008 12:45 PM

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