Interview: Musician Andrew Bird On Using The L.A. River As His Muse

Songwriter, violinist and expert whistler Andrew Bird released his latest instrumental recording Echolocations: River earlier this month. It’s the second installment of his experimental, site-specific series that began with 2015’s Echolocations: Canyon. While the first was recorded in Utah’s Coyote Gulch canyons, Bird chose a completely different environment as his inspiration for this second go-round: the Los Angeles River.

We had a chance to talk to Bird specifically about recording River before his sold-out show at Zebulon on Thursday night, where he debuted some of the new compositions, accompanied by visuals and footage from Tyler Manson’s companion short film. In our conversation, we discussed his process, his obsession with topographical maps, how science played a role in these experimental works and whether he used waders to venture into the river.

How did you come to pick the L.A. River as your site-specific muse? The last project you did was in the middle of Utah. Well, it’s in my neighborhood and I ride my bike along it all the time. I’m just kind of fascinated by it. I was spending a lot of time down there, and I thought this would be cool as a kind of contrast. Because each environment I’m doing, I want it to feel distinct from the one before it. They’re all unified by water, coincidentally.

I’ve done four of them, and I’ve now made the second album, based on it. So it’s a series, the next one will be the Marin Headlands—tunnel—and then aqueduct. All these spaces I find acoustically fascinating. And underneath the Hyperion Glendale Bridge, it’s a very old bridge, and it’s running across the river there at randomly different angles, so these strange ellipses form in the arches with these pockets of light, sky coming through. It’s actually quite beautiful with those wetlands in there and the fowl in there. It seemed like an ideal place.

There were some challenges with the traffic, but I tried to take that noise and turn it into part of the music.

How long did it take you to record the tracks for this album? The process involves going into the space and doing the field recordings. And I just spend as long as it takes. I start by sending out sound waves, certain notes and seeing what’s coming back off the wall. I listen for the notes that are giving me the most information about the space, thus the ‘echolocation.’ And then I build the composition based on that information. So from the tonal center for the canyon, there’s a piece called, ‘The Canyon Wants to Hear C Sharp.’ Pretty straightforward, so that’s the idea.

Certain sweeping notes will also give me certain information. So I’m doing a radar sweep of the area with music. And then I take those recordings back to my home studio and then listen and then start improvising to it and building studio recordings that will expound on the field recordings.

Do you go into a location with a composition semi-formulated or do you go in and see what works? I try and go in with a blank slate. That’s the idea, but that can be difficult...I was working on Are You Serious at the time so there’s melodies from Are You Serious that found their way into this record. It was really difficult to erase that stuff.

Can you tell me about the project’s origins? There’s a common thread that goes back to my childhood, really, of growing up and playing violin and being particularly obsessed with tone. And over the years, I would go into different spaces and I would like to play one note. I would do this in high school and college, go into an auditorium by myself and play one note for hours and get it to spin and resonate and try to get the room to resonate sympathetically to that.

Did you have specific influences for these site-specific works or field recordings All I knew is that I wanted to keep it scientific...The live performance involves geo-survey data from NASA and other places and these animated sequences involving the actual environment, but in like a topographical map sort of way. I’ve always been obsessed with maps, especially topographical maps. That’s also what’s part of pushing [these] ideas, and that’s an element of these live performances with projections. It just kinds of drives the idea home of sonic mapping.

The Hyperion Bridge is beautiful. Are there any other spots in the city that inspire you like that? Being in California, there’s suddenly options of different environments. Whatever I do, I want the next thing to be distinctly different. And I’ve thought of capping [the Echolocations series] off with an anechoic environment because all these environments are so reverberant. Doing the opposite in like a redwood forest where you can hear a squirrel eating a nut, yet, it’s dead very acoustically...and how does that make the listener feel, experiencing that? And what kind of music would I write in that kind of space?

Were you in bare feet in the L.A. River or were you in waders? No, I was just barefoot...The air quality is horrendous, but the water is fairly clean*. It’s got that distinct aroma of ammonia or I’m not sure what it is. Bleach? Otherwise, it’s really cool with the wetlands in there. I was originally going to do it by where the 5 [Freeway] crosses over. But it was just too hard to get down there. That’s super dystopian.

*Not sure if we'll venture barefoot into the L.A. River anytime soon: but hey, to each their own.

Andrew Bird is currently playing a handful of October dates in Northern California. He then returns to Nashville and Chicago in December for a number of Gezelligheid Performances. Echolocations: River is available now.