Andrew Bird & Jimbo Mathus :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

It’s easy to project an idea of what Andrew Bird is like before speaking with him. Reach back into his body of work beyond this year’s These 13—his extensive catalog of studio albums, live albums, EPs, countless selections as a featured performer, his work as a film composer, actor, and classically trained violinist—and you’ll find the finely carved markings of a disciplined artist. You could imagine that he possesses an air of midwestern austerity, a stoicness found in musicians of a previous era where practice preceded any other responsibility. You could suggest that he creates music not because he enjoys it, but because he must. But all it takes to topple such a biased assemblage of a persona is the insight from a friend, someone who knows a subject beyond what their work suggests.

“What’s up, Bird,” Jimbo Mathus asked in his thick Mississippi drawl as Andrew joined our call, his words rolling from a wry smile, so profoundly disarming.

If there ever was a Yin to Bird’s cerebral Yang, it was Jimbo Mathus, a born and bred Mississippi charmer, a deep adherent to the mythic traditions of country blues music. Jimbo himself, a wild, voodoo-esque southern gent, is a character of rural folklore. He comes from a partial lineage of country blues legend Charley Patton and studied his esoteric guitar playing. He held stints with Buddy Guy and other great bluesmen, and ground his teeth as an eccentric performer playing in rock and folk bands through the last 40 years. But most importantly in this instance, he helped formulate the rebirth of swing music in the ‘90s with Squirrel Nut Zippers, a vessel that would eventually kindle his 25 year friendship with Andrew Bird. 

These 13 is the first project the duo has collaborated on since the days of the Zippers, though it’s a far cry from the vaudevillian ethos of the group. Instead, using just a fiddle, a guitar, and their unique vocal blend, Bird and Mathus focused on the raw and primitive songwriting traditions of the deep south. In many ways, These 13 is an ode to the Mississippi Delta and the very framework of country blues, but at its core is the sound of two humble souls distilling their lifelong appreciation of early American music into one honest, uninhibited sound. 

As Andrew Bird and Jimbo Mathus prepare to release their first collaboration in two decades, we talked with the duo about the concepts behind These 13, the profound impact of Charley Patton, oldfangled showmanship, the future state of live music, and the serendipitous genesis of their unlikely friendship. | c ruddell

Aquarium Drunkard: Jimbo, I saw a comment online that described you as “Mississippi’s Dr. John.” How does that title feel to you? 

Jimbo Mathus: It’s about right. I mean, I’m getting close enough, you know. I’ve definitely put in my time as a kind of “person of my region.” I absorb a lot of good stories, the history and all that and have the musical experience to express that through song. So I would definitely take that as a compliment and something to even improve upon. 

AD: It’s interesting to trace your respective lineages back and see how different they look on paper. Jimbo, you come from this kind of gritty, country blues upbringing in Mississippi, and Andrew, you’re from a more formal classical, midwestern background. But Jimbo, you formed Squirrel Nut Zippers and somewhere along the way, Andrew appeared and your divergent paths came together in this hot-jazz, swing revival outfit. How did that happen? 

Jimbo Mathus: Now that you mentioned it, I’m even more thankful for the Zippers and for that curiosity that he and I both had for that type of music. I guess I’ve gone back so far in the depths of learning blues and this deep Southern thing, I was intrigued by the other forms of jazz and roots music, like the hot jazz swing era, Tin Pan Alley, you know…If it wasn’t for the work in the Zippers, we might never have hooked up or combined our interest in that era of music. We moved away from that, but it was definitely a unique thing we both shared. It opened the door to the rest of American music. 

AD: Andrew, how did you meet Jimbo?

Andrew Bird: I was right out of music school. I was working at a Renaissance fair in Southern Wisconsin playing Irish music that passed for medieval. I’d go around in my little serf outfit and I played with the hurdy-gurdy guy and the dulcimer guy and the flute guy. It was not a bad gig. Not great for one’s dignity, but I was playing. I was busking for people. I was told one day to play for people waiting in line for the bathroom. Anyway, I was just starting out as a working musician and I went with the dulcimer guy and the flute player down to Black Mountain Festival in North Carolina and that’s when I first saw the Zippers. I already heard their first record, but I was just so struck by the kind of—just the personality that was on stage, the showmanship and just how it was just very eccentric. I think of the Zippers less like a swing revival band and more like just a bunch of eccentric, southern, post punk weirdos. 

Jimbo Mathus: Yeah. You know, like a cult. [laughs]

Andrew Bird: Yeah, and I started making my first album Music of Hair and I had a couple of tracks on a cassette of me playing some hot jazz and gypsy jazz. I gave them the tape of that and they listened to it on the way to the next gig and asked me to sit in with them. And then a couple weeks later, we were in New Orleans making [Squirrel Nut Zippers’] Hot. But that began like an intensive few years of us working together on each other’s bands. You know, Jimbo on the first Bowl of Fire records and me on the first Zippers records, and then when we made “Songs for Rosetta,” Jimbo’s tribute album to Charley Patton’s daughter, that’s when I got the idea of—that’s when I was really inspired by, not the jazz element, but that angle that he and the Zippers had done, the old timey weird old American music thing.

AD: Outside of your shared experience in Squirrel Nut Zippers, this record you’ve put together feels largely inspired by Charley Patton and The Mississippi Sheiks and Delta blues music. How much did Patton’s work inspire this record? Jimbo, I know you have a personal connection with Patton; can you speak to that? 

Jimbo Mathus: Of course. Um, just to drop back one second on how serendipitous it was that Andrew was working on this type of avant-garde, you know, early American, vaudeville era thing in Music of Hair at the same time the Zippers were doing the same thing. But we were, you know, accepted and listened to. That was really kind of unbelievable. So when we heard his tape, it was like, “Oh, my God. Why is he not in our band?” He wasn’t wearing a certain, uh, “outfit” when we met him, you know [laughs]. He was this developed visionary. And so I responded to him through his writing and his performing. Even the way that his production was going with that Music of Hair record. It just really—it was just an incredible coincidence that we met that way. 

But as far as the Patton stuff, I found out about that through just the family, you know. As somebody who was already digging as far as I could, I’d learned Robert Johnson and the different bluesmen. I’ve learned the white hillbilly skillet licker stuff, you know, and to start sinking down further into the roots and found Charley Patton. I started working with his music and then soon, maybe a year after really heavy research into him and practicing his style, I found out that I’m actually tied to him in my family. Rosetta, his daughter, was part of our family in Coahoma County in Clarksdale. She was a darker skinned person. My family down there is Italian, but we were closely tied with the families down there. I called her Aunt Rosetta, you know? 

AD: Wow, that’s wild. 

Jimbo Mathus: Mm hmm. And then I was emboldened. Andrew knows that. I just said, “Okay. Well, I need to kind of pick up the torch a little bit on this and this is not just something I’m interested in or passionate about, but it’s something that actually means something to me. I could be the only tie left here.” Rosetta and I, I knew her as long as I’ve been alive. She only died a few years ago. I was at her funeral, of course. [Finding that connection] was like an atom bomb going off in my world. And then I was able to kind of share that with Andrew and it led to this lifelong inspiration for him as well. You know, listening to Charley’s music. It’s a tie into These 13.

AD: Andrew, is These 13 the first project you’ve both worked on since Jimbo’s Play Songs For Rosetta?

Andrew Bird: It might be? I‘m trying to think. Was there anything else? After the Zippers/Bowl of Fire period, I went off and was living in a barn in western Illinois and kind of peeling back all the layers of my influences and kind of stripping them away for a few years to rebuild the music I was making. That’s when I came out with Weather Systems. It was a different thing that I had to go through. There was a few years after the Zippers where there was a bit of a shadow of the Zippers which I had to kind of get out from under to build my own reputation. Between my albums, the ones that I put out every two or three years, when I finished writing those albums and recording them I was just like, “Who am I? What am I doing?” But I would always go back to Charley Patton, Staple Singers, The Hanson Family… I had my go-to’s when I was adrift. It would remind me what I was trying to do. And a lot of my in-between projects either tend to be really stripped down without many constructs around them just to keep me grounded. 

AD: What inspired you to bring back this collaboration after twenty-odd years? 

Andrew Bird: There were several moments over the years where I thought, “I’m gonna do this thing with Jimbo now,” but it slipped away for whatever reason. But I think I’m on an overall trend as I get older towards more… I like songs to be more simple and basic so that the playing and the singing can be more interesting. I’m just tired of like, writing too many bridges and pre-choruses and interesting chord progressions. I’ve always just had in the back my mind that I wanted to show my audience, or whoever I’ve got listening to me, what Jimbo’s got going on because it’s such a rare thing. Jimbo talks about research and studying and everything, and that’s part of it, but you could do research for days and still not be able to play it. He has these little lost patterns and feels that have been ironed out of music over the years that’ve been sort of normalized. Jimbo still has it. Like, you don’t know if he’s going to go to the IV chord or not. He turns the beat around, but you just know. I just love that sort of rough, intuitive approach to playing music.

Jimbo Mathus: It puts a little danger in there, you know? Music should be a little dangerous. [laughs]

AD: So much of this record is steeped in the musical heritage of the deep south, but some songs that stand out and that I love are “Beat Still My Heart,” and more specifically, the live video of “Poor Lost Souls.” It’s that slight Tejano style, the kind of thing that Ry Cooder was doing in the ‘70s. Were there any influences outside of the deep southern tradition that went into this record? 

Andrew Bird: I think I was totally thinking Jimbo and I were gonna do basically a cover record of Mississippi Sheiks tunes. I was just thinking “Okay, fiddle and guitar, nothing else.” I didn’t know that we’re gonna do so much writing together before we started and that’s where it kind of took a turn towards more of the… what do you call that Jimbo?

Jimbo Mathus: Playing like the cosmic, you know, the cosmic heebie jeebie. I mean, the Ry Cooder thing, I have the ties to [Ry Cooder producer] Jim Dickinson, and Doug Sahm. The universal approach to jug band music. It’s Tex-Mex into Appalachia.

Andrew Bird: Some of these tunes surprised me that they’re kind of that early country, clever punchline kind of, uh… Marty Robbins where the… who am I thinking of… “roller skating in a buffalo herd.” Damn. “Can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd.” I’m blanking on it. Anyway, you know, whatever that is. 

AD: Yeah, like that line in “Poor Lost Souls:” “She’s just a lump of coal, she could’ve been a diamond.” That’s kind of indicative of what you’re talking about.

Andrew Bird: Yeah, and “Red Velvet Rope” or “Burn the Honky Tonk.” Those went a little more early-country than I was totally anticipating we were gonna do. I thought it was going to be more of a country blues thing. But I welcomed it because it was fun writing. Jimbo would send me a couple verses of an idea and it would have that some sort of, you know, like “Dig Up The Hatchet.” It would have something and I would be like, “Oh, yeah. I know. I know what you’re talking about. I know how to keep this metaphor going.” I had a quick knee-jerk reaction lyrically to where he was going. 

AD: Jimbo, where were you coming from with the songs on this record? What were you writing about, or who were you writing to? 

Jimbo Mathus: I’ve been a songwriter for so long and a record producer, so as a producer you’re always trying to just bounce songs off the artist you’re working with, you know? Just ideas. So I almost treated Andrew like I was producing his record and just kind of feeling him out. I throw off a lot of ideas, you know, like he said earlier. Two or three a week. I can get something going with a song. Now whether it needs to be done or somebody responds to it, that’s another thing. But an artist like Andrew, I’m just throwing ideas out and I kind of saw what he was really gravitating towards. I was surprised that he liked the “Dig Up The Hatchet” and a couple of them. He finished my songs in a great way that I never could. And now it’s a song I’ll sing and play the rest of my life. A kind of intuition, you know?

AD: Sure. Andrew, it sounds like you both were feeling each other out in this process. Is that how you would say you approached the collaboration aspect of this record? 

Andrew Bird: Yeah. I mean, there were a couple rules of thumb that developed. Jimbo probably sent me 30 to 40 voice memos of individual songs. And some of them I’d be like, “No, that’s a little too like Heartland,” or something. I had an idea in my mind of what I wanted to present to the world. So that got distilled down to 13 songs. The rule of thumb was: If the song was entirely Jimbo’s, like “Beat Still My Heart,” then I would sing it. And if it was entirely mine, like “Three White Horses,” Jimbo would sing it. So it eventually ended up like half and half, or total collaboration in a song. Jimbo fired off more instigating ideas than I did, but I was doing a little more A&R-ing of the repertoire, you know? 

Jimbo Mathus: I looked at Andrew as an editor. And also, just the way he presented me with “Three White Horses,” he gave me the challenge to sing that, which he sung so beautifully himself.

Andrew Bird: While the tape was rolling on that song, Jimbo had just started singing “Lay Me Down With the Golden Chain.” He didn’t even send me an idea of doing that. We didn’t think about it. He just like immediately said this line intuitively about being laid to rest with some piece of jewelry. It’s the message of the song. 

Jimbo Mathus: I was just going back to a gospel song that Charley Patton had done and that line, you know, just popped in my mind. 

AD: I love that song, it stands out in such a delicate way. It’s so somber and emotive. The composed strings at the end really add this melancholy to it.

Jimbo Mathus: It’s a great way to end the album.

AD: It’s a song to me that really takes a step away from the earnestness of hillbilly music and showcases the pensiveness and sorrow that’s often found in American music of the south, but is so rarely addressed so boldly and barefaced. 

Jimbo Mathus: Mmm. I would have to agree with you. It’s the perfect coda to the ideas we share. It couldn’t be more perfect. I agree. It almost makes you weep to hear it. 

AD: Andrew, from a production standpoint, what was the most important aspect to capture when making this record? 

Andrew Bird: We’re no strangers to doing things live to tape. We worked with Mike Viola on this and he’s a big—it’s rare to find engineers and producers—it shouldn’t be so radical to play a song live on a record. But for some reason, it is. I just hate when I’m making albums—that’s what leads to me really not enjoying recording is having to deconstruct songs and then piece them back together. It just seems so counterintuitive. So we knew that the way to do this record was basically with two ribbon mics. The first half was done side by side in this tiny studio at Mike’s house, and then the second session was a year later at Boulevard Recording in Hollywood, and again was just one or two microphones. The tape is important to take the edge off. Fiddle can become strident, and I just feel like ribbon microphones and tape darkens everything in a nice way. It’s not that we’re being all retro with how we’re doing it. 

Jimbo Mathus: It’s the only way we ever recorded, Andrew. Even the records we made in the ‘90s, we did the same way. [laughs]

Andrew Bird: The RCA 44 and a tape machine.

AD: Was Mike the first person you had on your mind for this project? 

Andrew Bird: Yeah. I’ve done a couple little things with him. I just really like him personally. And actually, making this album is very much informing how I’m about to make the next one with him again. It’s gonna be all acoustic. But it’s like, to keep it from sounding like “acoustic coffeehouse,” you have to really saturate the tape, not to go down into that specific association of… That’s just kind of where my head’s at right now. 

Jimbo Mathus: Viola is great, man. I mean, you were dead on with him. Even as a record producer myself, once Andrew scoped him out—we went to the little small studio, and I could easily just give it to Viola because he’s doing it perfectly and when we went to the bigger studio, he had great ideas and just really bloomed as a producer there. So I give him full credit for the production. 

AD: Jimbo, what do you admire most about Andrew’s approach to music? 

Jimbo Mathus: I mean, just his visionary aspect to me. The way he’s always moving. He studies things and then he has a great instinct on the strike. Of course, his technique, his voice. The way he’s able to move through the different eras of history and still be incredible, still be folky, rootsy, soulful, and visionary. And he’s just a good friend to me personally. That would begin the conversation. 

AD: What about you Andrew, what does Jimbo do that sparks you?

Andrew Bird: He grounds me. When I play with Jimbo, very simple things can be extraordinary. Yeah. I don’t know what else to say. It’s just, when it’d come time to play a little fiddle solo on this album, the way he’s comping in that kind of, whatever, the Jimbo sort of way, the Carter family, Charley Patton thing. Man, I could just place the simplest, you know—nothing volcanic. Nothing trying to impress anybody. And that’s such a hard thing to harness as a performer. You get restless and you wanna play more notes, but when I’m playing with Jimbo, I don’t feel compelled to impress anybody. 

Jimbo MAthus: Well, you know, that’s the whole thing with the old school upbringing. You accompany people. When Andrew plays, I try to make him sound as great as I can just with one instrument. And that’s really a communicating thing, you know, a sort of complement. And when he comps behind me when I’m singing, I can play simpler. It’s a very antique, time-tested thing we have to believe in.

AD: Jimbo, how do you picture the state of live music moving forward? What do you think is going to happen? 

Jimbo Mathus: I think it’ll be a great awakening after the pandemic. I think the reasons that music is important will be even more important. Those being: Coming together, sharing a moment, sharing thoughts you hold through the music, through the social interaction. I think people want to dance more. I think they’ll be so thankful that folk musicians, like ourselves, might be even more valuable, more meaningful. That’s the way I’m concentrating on it because what else could be more important? Everybody’s already looked at their computer. 

AD: Andrew, what do you think? When is it going to open up again? 

Andrew Bird: There’s a couple festivals still hanging on to the possibility of happening this summer, but otherwise we’re kicking everything to ’22. I know Newport is trying to make it happen. I could see a festival like that—it’s so small and contained. Maybe they could pull it off? And that one I’d like to do with Jimbo if that happens. But my rolling tours, my bus tours are all being postponed again and again and again. 

Jimbo Mathus: Same for me. Same for me.

Andrew Bird: Whoever’s been getting by on livestreams, they’re gonna come back to a live concert and be like, “Oh, my God. How did that even? How did that even get me through it?” I think there’ll be an appreciation, a new appreciation for the live experience for sure. 

Jimbo Mathus: We are planning a livestream on April 11 which is nice. The way we record it and film it and everything—I think the way Andrew does it is about the best I’ve seen. It’s the closest to a live experience, you know.

Andrew Bird: Jimbo came out here a couple months ago and we shot a short doc with playing these songs and other tunes that we both know, like [Charley Patton’s] “Elder Green,” just outside and nicely recorded. Some of them are takes that are the same songs that we did on the record, but the best take we’ve done, like “High John,” it was like we were locked in on that. So, yeah, it’s not—you know, we’re performers. Jimbo is like—I always thought of him as like, somebody who was always playing to themselves, like this old school vaudeville performer. That’s what I always appreciated about him. It’s not like a modern music industry approach to being in show business. It’s something from the early 20th century, like “give the people what they want.” 

Jimbo Mathus: You know, Woody Guthrie was a folk performer, but I bet he was a damn good entertainer too, first and foremost. And that’s definitely a component that’s the same for you, Andrew. You have your own style of doing that. But you captivate an audience, there’s no doubt. 

Andrew Bird: Yeah, but I got an education from Jimbo in the early days of the Zippers of what a real rock and roll performance should be like. And that was Chicago in the ‘90s, the middle of the post rock heyday and the focus was not on trying to give people an awesome show.

Jimbo Mathus: You gotta reach the people in the back seats, you know?

Andrew Bird: Whereas from the sides of the stage, I saw Jimbo doing like an entire song hopping on one foot. I was just like, “Whoa.” After being in these kinds of dark, cold places where people talk about music more than they play it, I was like, “I wanna do this.” [laughs]

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