Live sampling and looping have become common in concert performances, thanks to musicians from mid-2000s pop singer Howie Day to recent UK crossover breakout Ed Sheeran. But many up-and-coming artists armed with an acoustic instrument and a suitcase full of effects pedals cite critically acclaimed indie-folk star Andrew Bird, who plays Neighborhood Theatre on Tuesday.
The classically trained violinist, who appeared on three 1990s albums by North Carolinas Squirrel Nut Zippers, got a career boost when he dropped his band and changed musical directions, employing live looping and sampling.
I first started using it as a compositional tool, because violin has some limitations to it. Its a linear instrument. You can maybe play two notes at the same time. (I used sampling and looping) to create six or seven layers, says Bird, who has used the method with and without a backing band for the past 10 years. He now travels as a four-piece.
Its not just a way to simulate a band, he says. Its become its own sound.
Bird, who follows up his 2012 full-length album Break It Yourself with an even rootsier EP called Hands of Glory, says the decision was more creative than economic.
Without a band, it can be fairly liberating, he says. You dont have to defer to other peoples tastes. If its just you, the ideas you create can be more left-field, more malleable and strange. The music that more people started responding to was that music I made by myself.
Today, Bird is surrounded onstage by a drummer who controls his own samples and loops a bassist and a guitarist.
Hands of Glory was sparked by the gather-round-the-mic portion of Birds recent tours. The EP features covers of songs by artists such as Townes Van Zandt and Handsome Family as well as a couple of new originals.
We do this old-timey set where we just play around one microphone. Its become a real staple of the live show. Its been kind of inspiring for us, Bird says. The way you mix a record is based on where you stand and your spatial arrangement around the microphone. If you know that, most people can detect that its a real performance, but its especially evident (on Hands). You can hear floor boards creaking and moving around microphone, crickets outside. It gives it a nice sort of realism.
That realism is part of what draws listeners to Dr. Strings the nickname thats followed Bird since a 2007 appearance on the Muppets-like preschool series Jacks Big Music Show. The sound of Birds version of indie-folk is informed by his classical background and experience in roots music, jazz, and his willingness to experiment.
I didnt feel so committed to the culture of classical music that I couldnt jump into other things I heard and pick them up pretty fast, Bird, 39, says. It took me awhile to extract myself from my identity as a violinist. It wasnt until my early 20s. I had trouble with tendonitis from playing so much. Writing and touring saved me from being so focused on just playing this instrument. What about poetry, history, all these other things?