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The Chicagoist Intonation Interviews

By Scott Smith in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 22, 2005 1:15PM

As Pitchfork wraps up its four-day coverage of the Intonation Music Festival, Chicagoist presents the last of its coverage: a series of short interviews with four of the artists who played last weekend's fest: Andrew Bird, Head of Femur, The M's and The Go! Team.

2005_07_22_bird.jpgAndrew Bird

Chicagoist: How do you approach a live show? Is it an attempt to make it a reflection of what’s on the record?
Andrew Bird: No, not at all. It’s a completely different experience for me and for the audience. It’s taken me a while to figure that out: to not expect the record to be as exciting as the live show and not expect the live show to be as pristine. You can put all this effort into it and think “How am I going to re-create this record?” and that’s the way a lot of bands go into it the first couple times around. You just gotta throw that out the window and accept the the noise and the chaos of the whole thing.

I think records, for me, should have as little information on them as possible. Even emotional information. The kind of record you want to keep putting on over and over again might be very even and mellow. But emotion doesn’t really translate.

C: Is that because it might be your emotion and you think it wouldn’t necessarily be able to be picked up by somebody else?
Andrew Bird: No, that’s now what I’m saying. It’s just different. What feels good to you at that moment in the studio--and you just belt it out—is not the kind of thing you’re gonna want to hear 150 times. You have a certain limit to what you can process in the studio. It comes through in digital bits, you know? And too much information just wears you out. A live show? Different story.

C: Do you try to put as much of the emotion of the moment as possible into the live show?
Andrew Bird: I don’t deliberately try to do anything. You try to set things up so you have the freedom in a song…I try to simplify the songs for a live show and make them a little more cyclical, more basic. So you’re not too concerned about what’s going to happen next and can let yourself go more. People are gonna respond to that more than whether you nailed that outro.

C: What’s the challenge of doing big festivals like this as opposed to smaller club shows?
Andrew Bird: There’s way more variables. Not just the weather but…in order for me and my drummer to play with live loops I need like ten or twelve cables all of which could short out. Like today, the amps didn’t work, the back line didn’t work. So I was onstage, highly stressed for fifty minutes before I played. Then I was all wound up and had to work that out throughout the show.

C: How’d the whistling get started?
Andrew Bird: I whistle all the time. If you hung out with me for a day, it’d drive you nuts. But it’s a very pure sound. And I guess I have a physical predisposition to being able to cover a [large] range. I have kind of a weird tongue.

C: Good to know.
Andrew Bird: I use it all the time now. I mix it with bowing or pizzicato or glockenspiel to create different kind of moods.

C: When you’re working up a live performance, do you ever feel limited in working with a lot of electronic aspects?
Andrew Bird: Mmmm…no. I only take it as far as it’ll help me. Like the looping thing. You’ve seen bands with laptops and they take tracks of the record and play them and the drummer plays to a click. That just doesn’t work. If you take it too far, it becomes sterile.

C: You just came in from Spain for the show. Does the city of Chicago continue to have an influence on your work?
Andrew Bird: Oh yeah. If I grew up somewhere else and developed somewhere else, I might have not known how important a music community can be. Maybe if I grew up in Spain, for instance. They support the arts there and all but there’s not a sense that you can do anything you want. Here you’ve got to invent your own fun, your own place. People certainly do that everywhere but I think there’s a pretty healthy spirit of that here.

2005_07_22_hof.jpgHead of Femur
Nick Broste
Ben Armstrong

Chicagoist: You’ve got a mixture of people here who know you guys and are friends of the band and others who are maybe just finding out about you. How does that affect what you do and the set you put together?
Nick: That’s something that we think about sometimes. But we feel like we should just go out there and play the music for whoever’s out there and if they like it, they like it. It seems like it takes some people a while to pick up on it because it gets really dense and there’s a lot of changes and everything. We have a lot of great fans that we run into from all different cities that we run into all over the place. It seems like wherever we play, even if they don’t like us, they’re excited to hear something a little different than they normally hear.

C:You tour with an eight-piece band but the band is often as large as 24 people. The logistics behind that have got to be incredibly difficult.
Nick: We have a lot of friends that are string players so getting the people together [in the first place] wasn’t that hard. But getting them together to rehearse—or to a gig—that was a little more stressful.

(Ben joins at this point and a discussion ensues over the difficulty of traversing the Union Park grounds)

C: We were just talking about the logistics of performing with such a large band. You obviously get a much bigger sound when compared to a four-piece or a five piece [band]. When you guys started out, is that what you imagined?
Ben: Not necessarily. We were listening to bands that were three, four or five piece rock bands from the 60s that didn’t necessarily incorporate horns and strings as part of their band. But when they went in the studio they went “OK, let’s get a horn section. Let’s get a string section, let’s hire outside people to do this.” When we first started, in order to emulate those bands, we thought it would be cool but it wasn’t something where we were like “Well in order to do this we HAVE to find horn and string players.” It just kind of happened. There was a violin player living in the house we were practicing in so we recruited her. A good friend of mine played trumpet. So we just fell together in that respect and since that time then played shows where we had horns and strings as part of the sound and as the band progressed we wrote specifically for that sound.

C: For that kind of thing, you’d think you’d have to have a background in arranging.
Ben: No, you don’t. My personal background is in piano that I took as a little kid and drums. For the first few songs, it was mainly like singing parts back and forth to each other like “Can you go duh duh da duh duh daaa?’
Nick: You just have to be willing to do it and not be afraid to fuck something up.
Ben: Yeah, yeah. A huge background in arranging is definitely not a necessity. The first record was like “Let’s put everything on every song!” Then you learn from that and thin it out and you get better as you go along.

C: How did you feel about your set?
Ben: I thought it was good. We’re a lot tighter after one beer than then. I saw some kids singing along too like they had the record and were down with it.

C: What’s next for you guys?
Ben: More touring and eventually writing another record.

C: Any ideas for that right now?
Ben: Not really. I’m kinda bummed out. Led Zeppelin was able to write all of either II or III while on the road and record it while on the road and we’re finding you can’t do anything while on the road except drag ourselves out of bed to play a show. Eventually, we’ll get better at that.
Nick: They were also flying in a private jet. Although maybe not at that point.
Ben: Maybe at the beginning of the next year…

The M’s
Robert Hicks
Joshua Chicoine
Chicagoist: Was this the biggest crowd you’d ever played for?
Robert: Probably. It was probably like 2,500-3,000 people. They kept streaming in so it was hard to say who was there for us. We’ve played some bigger shows like with Wilco one time. But you know that people who come here are coming to hear the music.

C: How did you get involved with Intonation?
Robert: They [Pitchfork] approached us. One of the main curators was part of a political awareness festival that we had played at before. He knew us from that and asked us if we wanted to play. We’d actually rather play this than Lollapalooza.

C: Lollapalooza approached you as well?
Robert:Yeah. This is just cooler. I wouldn’t go to Lollapalooza but I would go here. Why would we play any other festival?
Joshua:I’d put this on par with Lollapalooza.

C: You’re going to have a much larger profile after playing something like this. Does that influence what you do on a future album?
Robert: Not necessarily. We’re right in the midst of making a record right now. This was our last show based off our current record and we were aware this would be the last show we’d be playing in Chicago for a while. This is going to end a certain paradigm for us. When we come out with our new record, it will be out on a new label. And when we next play out, we’ll be concentrating on that newer stuff.

C: So you’re taking things in another direction?
Robert: I don’t really know. That’s up to someone else to decide. It’s gonna be new songs but I always feel that other people can decide what they think about it. The more we worry about that stuff, the harder it is to write songs. None of us really wants it to be “just a band.” Who knows what that will be for the next time? We want to make it bigger.
Joshua: Everything is just so boring, you know? So we’re just trying to fight boredom.

2005_07_27_goteam.jpgIan from The Go! Team

Chicagoist: This is your first time here in Chicago. What is touring normally like for you guys?
Ian: We don’t actually tour that much. A—Because we were all working up until recently and B—we like to keep it fresh.

C: You guys just got signed to Columbia Records, is that right?
Ian: Yeah.

C: Do you all still have proper jobs now?
Ian: No, not really. Full-on rockers now.

C: What’s that like for you?
Ian: It’s only just happened, really. We’re all quite down-to-earth people. Personally, I’d be just as happy not to be on a major label. But because of the sample thing and there being six of us…the combination of that is expensive. It’s a weird clash of things because it’s kind of lo-fi.

C: It’s interesting because I think a lot of people think if you go to a major label, you have to make compromises in your sound. But it sounds like in order to continue what you’re doing with the band, you need that.
Ian: Yeah, yeah. Unless you go totally underground and don’t clear anything which is what we’ve done up until now. Sort of guerilla style. Just say “Fuck it” and put it out there. But there’s nothing that’s gonna change for us.

C: Still keeping that lo-fi sound?
Ian: Oh yeah.

C: What’s your biggest goal for the band right now?
Ian: I don’t know, really. I don’t really want to do anything but play things like this or play the Double Door. I’m quite happy in that world.