Last week, Andrew Bird agreed to talk to us about his famed “Gezelligheid” performances—the handful of solo holiday shows he does in Chicago and New York each December. A Dutch adjective with a kind of flexible meaning, “gezelligheid” can simply refer to a convivial or cozy atmosphere or extend to something greater, like feelings of togetherness and belonging, and time spent with loved ones. Bird told us about the origins of the shows, and about a crowdfunded tour of Latin America, which kicks off in February.
Can you tell us about the origin of the Gezellighed shows? What made you decide to start doing them?
I wanted to do more of an atmospheric show—not one that’s kind of driven by the rock band setup—and create an atmosphere that gets you through the dark. I was in Holland for a short time and I liked the way they lit things over there in December, and I found out they had a word for it, which is gezelligheid. They claim that it doesn’t really have a translation but I think it does.
I thought to do it in churches, you know, sacred spaces with the kind of long decay. And what I do is I use a couple dozen horns and kind of light them dramatically and play mostly solo. I mean, there are two sets, one is solo and mostly instrumental, and the other’s gonna be the old-timey thing we’ve been doing, which is an acoustic trio.
But yeah, there are 45 of these horns, some of them are spinning. It’s not the edge of your seat kind of show; it’s more sit back and let it wash over you.
Where were you when you were in Holland? In college I lived in Well for a couple months, a ways south of Amsterdam.
I’ve been all around, but when I got this idea I was in Amsterdam. I just came back from there actually.
It’s a cozy, gezelligheid place. I kind of get what they mean when they say it’s hard to translate. Everything is so small and pretty and thoughtful in a way. And you do feel closer to people.
Yeah, it was before a show in Amsterdam at this tiny little sushi place and this girl came in and sat at the bar, like squeezed in, and she said “Oh, gezelligheid.” What she meant was that it was a very small place. But that was her positive take on it the situation.
And it can be applied to a friendship too, or to like a bush. Kind of anything.
Yeah. I just remember as a kid, I used to play Handel’s Messiah every year—you know, the amateur, community version of Handel’s Messiah at some local church. It was always kind of dark and there were candles and the music is kind of dark but warm, and I don’t know, I just wanted to recreate that atmosphere.
I saw you play at the Beacon Theater in May, which is also a really beautiful space. Obviously it’s a lot bigger, and it’s nto a church, but it definitely has its own drama. I wondered if you think about that—the space—when you’re booking venues.
Yeah, definitely. There’s always the question of do you go with the architecture, or do you go against it. A lot of times when were playing a modernist lecture hall type performing arts center, it’s sterile. Like, what do you do? Do you flail around as everyone’s sitting there very studiously? Do you try to lift the room or do you just kind of accept what the room is and try to go with it? I kind of make that call every time. It depends on the audience—if they’re willing to forget where they are, the room doesn’t matter. You have to go on the first couple songs and read the audience.
Like take it as you go?
Yeah, but usually I’ll have an idea before hand. It’s a practical question. Is it a listening room or is it a rock room?
About “Hands of Glory,” your companion album to “Break it Yourself”: I was wondering if you could tell our readers how that came to be. How the sets from the “Break it Yourself” tour came to be an album on its own.
Well, I feel like “Break It Yourself” was heading in that direction of more raw and less fussy, and more of a performance-driven recording. And once we got it on stage it took on its own energy, which then inspired us to do the old-time thing as part of the set. And that had such a great reaction.
By design the set would kind of ramp up and get more and more complex and we’re all doing our looping and it’s almost disorienting—you don’t know where the sound is coming from. And then it kind of falls off a cliff because we unplug everything and go over to one microphone, and the contrast, it was a little jarring for the audience but in a good way. For the old-time people would start hooping and hollering.
But also the first couple of records I made were done that way. Back then it was kind of a religion. I thought if we were gonna do it that’s how we were gonna do it. Now it’s more like, These are the tunes I’ve been playing for 20 years to get ready for a show, to kind of warm up, and connect, make sure you’re being musical. Let’s put that on a record. That was the idea for “Hands of Glory.”
Do you and your band always record in the barn at your house in Illinois?
We have for the last three years. It used to be more of a private sanctuary, but just in the last couple years I brought the band in with this somewhat casual pretense- “We’re just going to get together to jam and bring someone to cook for us.” Because usually it’s like the clock is ticking. But that was the first session for “Break it Yourself.” We were like, Let’s just see what happens, and then that was very successful. We got most of the record in that first week. So we did it again the next summer, and did it again. We’ve done it three summers in a row now.
Yeah, I guess the atmosphere is so important, not just for performances.
Yeah, and the people you choose to work with is, you know, of course, equally important. We were just working with our front of house engineer who knows what we’re capable of live and is so old school. We didn’t want to use any headphones or anything that would cause a sense of disconnect. And the absolute perfect way to do that is no headphones, completely live, one microphone. It’s the hardest way to do it. Most producers would not have their artists do that. Because you have no options, you have no control.
You mean because you can’t hear what you’re doing?
No, because you can’t do anything to it after you’ve recorded it. If you moved an inch to the left it changes the whole mix. So most engineers want to have total control. Working with Neil, our front of house engineer…everyone just has a very unfussy spirit.
Yeah, I read that you put your drummer on the porch.
Well that was the one concession we had. We love to have him in the room with us for camaraderie, but we tried it with him in the room and it just blows everything out of scale. But he was happy out there.
I also wanted to ask you about the tour in Latin America in February—the crowd-sourced tour you guys set up. I was wondering how that idea came to be.
I think they approached us. They were looking to have their inaugural launch of that idea. It’s a cool idea. It’s untested yet, so I don’t know what the cons are yet, but so far it’s all good. What it feels like—I haven’t don’t it yet of course—is almost like there’s a commitment between me and the audience, before the show. There’s a sense of responsibility, shared responsibility, that I think is kind of cool.
Like they brought you there on purpose. They didn’t just hear you were coming.
Right, and everyone’s more invested. You know, a lot of times, talking about disconnect or connectedness, you have that show with the audience but then you’ve got all the promoters and the stage, the industry people can kind of ruin it for you sometimes. You know? Like I love playing in France, but the way they do business there has kind of soured the whole experience, even though the audience is amazing and super enthusiastic. This seems like a way to establish direct connection with the audience.
(Photos by Cameron Wittig)