Andrew Bird, currently on tour, resembles the hip science teacher you might have been lucky enough to have in high school. He's the kind of guy who knows how the gears of economics and politics mesh with the the natural world, and he's nice enough to clue you into these mysteries without making you feel too stupid. On Noble Beast, his seventh album, Bird opens up a musical cabinet of curiosities, a soundtrack to the natural history museum of your dreams. Stringed instruments and oddball percussion accompany the gently grinding gears of history, as Bird intones his thoughts on the natural and unnatural worlds, occasionally breaking into a high-flying violin break or eerie whistling solo. Best of all, you don't have to worry about whether or not this Darwinian shindig will be on your final.
Richard Gehr: How did the theme of natural history emerge as you were making Noble Beast?
Andrew Bird: It started looking that way as I was starting to finish up the record. I made this record comparatively quickly. There wasn’t time to come up with a concept. I don’t really believe in concept records, but they sometimes reveal themselves later. I'll be like "Oh wow, I talked about sheep on four different songs, I didn’t realize that." Sometimes an album is almost one long song. Noble Beast is a concept record in that sense. My previous records dealt with mental illness a lot, or social hysteria, or the childhood-science sort of thing. And lately it’s been nature.
RG: Noble Beast seems to have the residue of some of those subjects as well.
AB: Yeah, I guess natural history and science kind of go together. I love the era when things were still being named, that nineteenth-century period of natural history when species were being discovered and cataloged.
RG: Did you spend a lot of time in museums looking at animals in their natural or unnatural habitats as a kid?
AB: I did. I remember going to the Field Museum in Chicago quite a bit. My mother was a neighborhood art teacher, so we would take trips to the art institute. I remember being fascinated by the taxidermy exhibits at the Field Museum. And the whole esthetic of that early glass-and-steel kind of greenhouse thing with arboretums and conservatories has always kind of appealed to me.
RG: Do you think those interests led you to become more environmentally aware?
AB: It’s hard to say which comes first. But I think nature is kind of the final frontier and one that’s more and more precious as time goes on. So yeah, probably so. The "Planet Earth" series was a big influence on this record. I always imagine David Attenborough intoning the words noble beast. So yeah, it’s still the final frontier in terms of imagination and mysteriousness. I'm thinking about all sorts of things on this record, like the ways in which groups of animals behave and think as one. There are many pretty ripe metaphors for whatever you want, really. Like the way we humans behave together in society, either in groups or as individuals. The record's theme for me is nature’s brain. Who’s the director? Where’s the team? What’s the directive?
RG: Are you an outdoorsy kind of guy?
AB: I try to spend as much time outside as possible. I can’t stand being cooped up on a tour bus. I’m always trying to get outside. I’m a big bicycling freak. I bring my bike on tour and ride every day. The last couple of years, I’ve seen a few cities kind of get on board with bike trails. I've been impressed by Europe, I have to say. I just got back from five weeks over there. I went bicycling in Copenhagen and Amsterdam. I also have a family farm out in Western Illinois, and that’s been a big inspiration.
RG: What kind of bike do you ride?
I have a Heron touring bike, but it’s too nice and too easy to get bent out of shape on a bus. So I got this very simple Bianchi Pista track bike with a two-speed hub on it. It’s awesome, really great.
RG: Would you consider yourself an environmental activist?
AB: I think so. I consider my music as an opportunity to raise awareness. Politics is a bit of a tricky thing to navigate. My songs sometimes address things that are political, even accidentally, but I’m not a populist songwriter. The era of the protest song...that’s just really hard to pull off. I have songs like "Sick of Elephants," which pretty directly talks about Bush getting re-elected. I could name probably a dozen songs that are fairly pointed. There are things I feel strongly about, universal issues that are not particularly partisan. Before you called, I was thinking about traveling through Europe, especially in the Scandinavian countries, and what they choose to do with their prosperity. A lot of them aren’t in a position to pull some stuff off, because they’re so small and homogeneous. I'm not saying it’s as simple as emulating European countries, but that’s the issue for me: How are we using our public money? Is it to take care of our citizens, or is it being squandered on useless enterprises? I'm alarmed by the lack of transparency in state and federal politics. So prosperity is an issue these days, if it even exists anymore. I think more should be done with public spaces, city planning, quality of life; all the things that make you want to work and be part of our society. These are things I care about and they're pretty universal. We could talk about healthcare, but yeah, that’s where I stand.
RG: What are you listening to these days?
AB: I just got these Staples Singers albums, the Vee-Jay stuff from the late fifties and early sixties. It’s just phenomenal. A lot of stuff I come back to is gospel. I wouldn’t call myself a believer, but I’m drawn to Old Testament imagery. The words are great. It’s kind of mysterious as well. I still listen to a lot of African stuff. I generally like groovy music, or gospel music.
RG: Read any good books lately?
AB: I’m almost done with The Book of Daniel by E. L. Doctorow. I’m learning a lot about the history of the radical left in New York. It’s a really good book. I’ve been on a Saul Bellow kick for the last year or two. I get into people for just a couple of years and I just kind of exhaust their catalog. Before Bellow I was into Graham Greene for a couple of years.