A single man can create plenty of sound if he uses a violin, spinning victrola horn, glockenspiel and a palette of pedals all at once. And if he’s Andrew Bird, there will also be whistling.
Bird, the 40-year-old multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, blends country blues, early jazz and gypsy music into an ethereal brand of pop, punctuated by dark, whimsical lyrics. He plays at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis on Thursday.
Bird has been busy. He released two albums in 2012 – “Break it Yourself” and its shorter companion, “Hands of Glory” – stripped-down, no-fuss productions largely recorded on an 8-track in his Illinois barn. Also recent: film scores, museum sonic art installations, pieces in The New York Times and a documentary repeatedly making the festival rounds.
In late October, he played “The Quietest Show on Earth” in the Mojave Desert to raise awareness of national parks. After a November jaunt around California, his Gezelligheid holiday series goes to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago – intimate shows in historic, sacred spaces. To coincide, he’s releasing “I Want to See Pulaski at Night,” a mostly instrumental EP, on Tuesday.
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The Bee caught Bird by phone in Los Angeles, resting up at home before he goes on tour.
Can the Davis audience expect to hear mostly “Hands of Glory” and “Break it Yourself,” or will you go all over the place?
All over the place. I’ve been going back to the old Bowl of Fire tunes and fixing things I didn’t do right the first time. It’s been so long since I wrote them that it basically feels like I’m covering myself. That’s kind of fun. I go from the full-on multiple violin loops and spinning victrola horns and glockenspiel and whistling, and the next song will be just guitar and vocals. The solo shows can almost be more dynamic than the band shows.
Tell me more about “ The Quietest Show on Earth.”
It has sort of a corporate backing so at first I was wary. Like, what are the intentions of this? But the thing that sold me was that it was for the parks, and I really couldn’t argue with that. And I always like playing in alternative-type venues and situations where maybe I’ll learn something. And I think I did. … It was just a struggle not to lose my voice because it was pretty darn dusty out there, and throughout the show it dropped like 35 degrees.
The desert, all the old churches – what are some other alternative venues you’ve played at?
Just last year we played in a cave in Tennessee, for a PBS series called “Bluegrass Underground.” We were in some natural ballroom in a cave. And back when we were just scraping by, the first 10 years of getting out there, really, you’d find yourself playing some weird spots.
That’s where some of “Table and Chairs” comes from, the idea of playing in the burned-out banks of the world. ... We played a Rastafarian wedding in Georgia. It was really peculiar. It was for this guy who looked exactly like Bill Clinton, but Rastafarian.
You’ve talked about pedals and looping as extensions of your violin, giving the instrument more potential. And that makes me think about technology, instruments and music as extensions of ourselves. Do you have any thoughts on cyborgism?
Cyborgism. Is that a thing? [Laughs] You say it like it’s a thing.
It’s an idea about our reliance on technology, how we’re all becoming part-human, part-machine.
Oh. I think that’s certainly partially true with devices. But I think we need to fight that impulse, and sometimes I fight it in my music, too. It can get a little much, and I’ll purposefully go cold turkey. The real key to what I’m doing is that there’s no memory. It’s still ephemeral. If I go onto another idea, I erase everything, and that’s what keeps it from getting out of control. I got into looping because I couldn’t deal with recording myself. Going across the room and pressing “record” is too deliberate of an act – it changes the atmosphere immediately. It’s too much pressure.
But playing with these looping pedals, pressing a button with my foot, knowing it’s going to incorporate my mistakes, it’s like I can go beyond the linear violin.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center, One Shields Ave., Davis