In one of the many memorable songs on Thrills (Rykodisc, 1998), Andrew Bird’s sweet and smoky debut with his band Bowl of Fire, the part-time Squirrel Nut Zipper protests in bewilderment, “I’ll do anything you want, but I won’t be your glass figurine.”
The lyric is ostensibly meant for a lover, but it could just as easily be the Chicago-based musician’s mission statement.
At 25, Bird is already a celebrated violinist: “After hearing Bird [play] the violin for just two minutes, you’ll realize that the devil went down to Georgia for a fiddling contest because he realized if he’d gone north, Andrew Bird would have left him crying in the gutter,” gushed one critic. But ironically — given his association with the popular Zippers — the fiddler is also a vocal skeptic of the revival of swing music.
“One thing that alarms me about the swing movement is the whole politics [of] idealism,” he explains. “People view it as going back to when things were all wonderful, and I think it’s dangerous for young people to be thinking that way. It’s a difficult territory to tread. When we started, we had to figure out where we fit into the whole swing thing, and I’ve found we’re better off if we pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Nevertheless, Bird is not above courting the past on Thrills: Both “Pathetique” and “A Woman’s Life and Love” (sung by the Zippers’ Katherine Whalen) are adaptations of old German poems, and the violinist closes the album with a humble cover of Charlie Patton’s “Some of These Days.” Yet he firmly believes in keeping musical history in perspective.
“People are overly reverent of past great musicians; they deify them, as if all we could ever hope to do is live in their shadow,” Bird elaborates. “I find that thinking dangerous, as well. … The fact is, we’re alive and they’re dead.”
Bird stumbled onto swing by default. “I was interested in it as I was interested in a number of things, exploring all different kinds of music: folk, Irish, gypsy,” he notes. “I was into anything that could be played on a string instrument.” But when he finally found his niche in old jazz, it wasn’t the swell of the horns that caught his fancy. “It was fiddle players like Stuff Smith, and small groups from the ’30s, not big band music [that interested me],” he explains. “A couple years ago I started [homing in] on [that] kind of music.”
With some surprising results, it seems: “I’ve lost all feeling of nostalgia for [the era],” he reports. “It’s my music now, and it doesn’t feel like [it’s from] that long ago. We’re taking traditional music and rediscovering it … not really recreating the music, just departing from where it left off.”
Live, the band is apt to put more swing in their thing, Bird admits. However, “it’s less than half of what we do,” he stresses, pointing out, “we feel more of a connection with [bands] from other genres.”
Bird himself professes an inclination toward some of today’s alt-country and Latin bands rather than fellow swing revivalists, admitting sheepishly that some of the latter groups “make me want to run out of the room.”
To escape the domain of detail-glossing copycats, Bird made sure that Thrills — which also features drummer Kevin O’Donnell, bassist John Hirsch, guitarist James Mathus (also of Zipper fame) and trumpet player Jack Fine — had a murkier feel: Trying to capture the gritty, lo-fi fever of old jazz ’78s, Bird recorded the work live, using a single microphone.
But Thrills is a work of many moods. A sometimes dark, sometimes cheeky, and always passionate hybrid of early jazz, eerily lilting German cabaret music and country blues, it’s a mix most exciting in the roguish lament of “Nuthinduan Waltz,” and in the deliciously macabre chill of “50 Pieces,” a song which stars Bird’s fiddle as a lovestruck banshee.
Bird’s offbeat lyrical style has often been compared, with good reason, to the quirky deadpannings of Tom Waits. (“Don’t be sympathetic/Just pass the anesthetic,” the violinist intones stoically in “Eugene.”) And Bird agrees that stimulating listeners’ imaginations is a pet theme of his.
“Our songs tend to have a little more ‘what-is-it?’ feeling,” he says. ” I’m always trying to find connections between seemingly disparate groups. I try to work in some subtle theatrics or narrative, a cabaret feel. … I feel a kind of pressure to engage the audience at every moment, to make [older music] relevant to them.”