Andrew Bird is one of rock's most unlikely stars. A classically trained violinist with a penchant for whistling, his brand of cool is anything but conventional. He didn't even like pop music until his late 20s. Then he embraced loop pedals and reworked "Don't Be Scared," a sparkling alt-country tune by the Handsome Family. When promoters billed him as an indie rocker, he started selling out theaters across the country. I asked him about this transformation - and his new album, Break It Yourself - during a recent phone call.
You've said you used to find pop music boring. What changed and why?
I started to appreciate the brevity of a well-written pop song. I was obsessed with early jazz, but I got tired of the style of music getting all the credit. I started stripping away those associations, and somehow that sounded like indie rock. It was around when I was doing [2003's] Weather Systems. The Handsome Family song "Don't Be Scared," when I heard it, that's when I got it.
What were some of your goals for Break It Yourself?
I've been on this kick of realism lately.... I don't like it when I can hear production decisions being made on a record.... I just wanted us to sound like four people playing music in the barn. You can hear the crickets outside and the floorboards squeaking.
How did you discover you could whistle?
I've been doing it since I was 4 years old, pretty much incessantly. It's just a natural way melodies come from my body. For a while, I resisted using it in on my records, but now it seems dishonest to not have it.
Do you have a favorite song to whistle?
I whistle whatever's in my bones that day.... I met Mariah Carey once, and she asked what I did. I said, "I'm a songwriter. I play violin. I whistle." She was like, "Oh, I whistle with my throat." Then we traded fours on "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay." It was one of the most surreal moments of my life.