‘A Real Kinship’: Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird Team Up for ‘These 13’
Jimbo Mathus, left, and Andrew Bird (photo by Reuben Cox)
Andrew Bird and Jimbo Mathus are more than two accomplished musicians that work well with each other.
They’re friends, with a creative, open-minded chemistry built upon 25 years of mutual respect and a desire for continued artistic growth. It’s out of this relationship that These 13, their first-ever collaborative LP, came to be. And it’s why the project is such a meaningful one for them both.
“It’s two dudes who love each other, playing songs that mean something to them,” Mathus explains in a joint call with Bird. “The next thing will be a comedown. This has been a deeper, more enriching experience, built on our love of music.”
“I’ve never had so much fun making a record,” adds Bird. “I know what I’m doing; I don’t always know what’s going to come out of Jimbo. That’s part of the fun.”
A ‘Fortuitous Meeting’
These 13 was written largely in 2018 via voice notes that Bird and Mathus shared back and forth. It was recorded in two bursts, in early 2019 and early 2020, with just the duo performing live to analog tape and sharing a single microphone for vocals.
The event was the Black Mountain Music Festival in North Carolina. Mathus was there with his swing-and-jazz ensemble Squirrel Nut Zippers, who were “launching in a big way.” Fresh out of college, Bird was there with what Mathus describes as “a little kind of Renaissance band,” a guitar-and-violin duo that would typically be found at a Renaissance fair.
“I was 22, 23 and into all sorts of stuff — Irish, Appalachian, gypsy jazz — and I gave him a tape of me playing hot jazz,” Bird recalls.
Soon after, Squirrel Nut Zippers was in Bird’s hometown of Chicago for a show and in need of a fiddle player. Within a few weeks of that, Bird was a permanent member of the band.
“It was quite the fortuitous meeting and I’m so thankful, Andrew, you had that cassette,” Mathus says. “That was the power of cassettes; on tour, you spend a lot of time in the van listening to them. From that day forward, I was automatically drawn to him.”
Bird was a member of Squirrel Nut Zippers from 1996 to 1998 and played on three of their albums: Hot, Sold Out, and Perennial Favorites. Working with Mathus was crucial to broadening his musical horizons and gaining real-world experience, he says.
Coming from Chicago and out of the higher education system, Bird didn’t have much personal experience with Southern roots music and culture. Mathus, a longtime North Carolina resident who grew up in Mississippi, is fully immersed in the Southern tradition. Almost instantly, Bird felt drawn to that authenticity and Mathus’ abilities as a musician.
“Jimbo kind of tapped into something in me that was there, but kind of dormant,” Bird explains. “I was coming out of the academic world of conservatory in Chicago and I was just really thirsty to learn. Every week I was into something new. I was really kind of just starting to find the earthy roughness in my playing, when Jimbo invited me into this Southern world of music and culture, and all these Southern Gothic weirdos, and I mean that as the highest compliment.”
The sort of “a-ha” moment where everything started clicking in their relationship was Mathus’ 1997 solo record Play Songs for Rosetta.
For Bird, playing on that album was a real-life entrée into Mathus’ world. Rosetta Patton was Mathus’ childhood nanny. She was also the daughter of blues icon Charley Patton and never received any royalties or payments from the sale of her father’s music. Play Songs for Rosetta was an opportunity for Mathus to give back to an important figure in his life and pay tribute to the sounds that became part of his sonic palette. And it allowed Bird to delve into that aforementioned “earthy roughness.”
“I was really inspired by that record,” enthuses Bird. “I didn’t know much about Charley Patton and how his music doesn’t conform (to expectations) and was still connected to that pre-war commercialization. For me, it was one of my first non-Zippers, swing-type things. How would you describe it, Jimbo?”
“There’s these regional pockets (in the South) where things could develop. Patton’s stuff would turn the beat around; it’s wasn’t 12-bar blues, it was hymnal, predating the form the blues would later take,” Mathus notes. “Andrew played this real good, scratchy fiddle.”
Around this same time, Bird left Squirrel Nut Zippers and became bandleader of Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire. But the experience he had playing with Mathus on Play Songs for Rosetta stuck with him, leaving him with a desire to see what they could cook up together in the future.
“It really turned me on,” he says. “I was like, ‘Someday I’d like to make a record with Jimbo, just fiddle and guitar.’ Twenty years later, here we are.”
Squirrel Nut Zippers continued for a couple more years after Bird’s departure, calling it quits in 2000. Mathus has been downright prolific in the years since, releasing over a dozen albums that hit on Delta blues, blues-and-garage rock, gritty Southern soul, honky-tonk, and folk.
Bird has been equally busy, first with Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire and then as a solo artist. He’s become a beloved singer-songwriter, known for a keen ability to seamlessly mix jazz, ’60s soul, pop, indie rock, and folk with his voice and unique violin looping style.
Despite going down separate paths, Mathus and Bird remained friends and fans of each other’s work. While they were mostly following their own respective muses, they maintained regular contact, and the idea of another collaboration lingered in the background.
“After Bowl of Fire and Squirrel Nut Zippers, I went on this path of stripping away stylistic things, stripping back the layers and find out who I am as a songwriter,” Bird says. “But during the garage rock revival of the early 2000s, I was like, ‘Oh man, Jimbo and I could show ’em how it’s done. Jimbo could kill this stuff.’ But we both had a whole list of things going on.”
“I’m still on the same sort of thirsty path as Andrew,” Mathus says. “I’m a few years older and a few years behind him in terms of formal study; I didn’t have the same resources in Mississippi growing up but I started doing more research when I came to North Carolina. I’ve been a sideman for Andrew and in some ways, his spirit animal, helping him with his music and him helping with mine. But we never really got into each other’s psyches.”
Finally, in 2018, a collaborative effort moved from the back burner to the forefront.
‘It Seemed Like Time’
“Andrew has been busy with being an incredible singer, writer, he’s a visionary,” Mathus says. “This seems like a vision he had, a light bulb went off that the time to do this is now.”
“It seemed like time,” Bird concurs.
The project started simply enough. Mathus sent Bird snippets and song ideas he was working on. Almost instantly, something clicked and Bird got to work adding to it.
“Jimbo sent me these ideas for ‘Red Velvet Rope,’ and I was like, ‘I see what he’s getting at,’” Bird recalls of the album’s fifth track, which takes a peek into the highs and lows of celebrity culture. “I decided I would write from the point of view of the person on the outside, getting up and away from all the cameras and bright lights.
“I just had this very instantaneous reaction that I wouldn’t have working on my own,” he adds. “I don’t have that kind of clarity and it can drive you mad.”
Bird found that Mathus would provide him with a “clear punchline,” noting how a song like “Dig Up the Hatchet” provided a neat, fun point to work from.
“Everyone knows ‘burying the hatchet,’ so let’s ‘dig up the hatchet,’” he remarks. “We were stirring shit up for our mutual entertainment. One of us would provide a complete sentence, then the other would offer the other side of the coin. You had two perspectives in a song, coming together.”
Mathus felt a similar thrill in the back-and-forth songwriting dynamic. And from an emotional standpoint, sharing in the experience with his good friend made the whole process even more meaningful.
“We co-wrote everything, which is something we’ve never done before,” he notes. “These aren’t complex songs, it was a very workmanlike, rail-building action.
“I learned a lot, actually,” Mathus continues. “Helps to have a person to talk with, that you can get a hold of and work with, do interviews with. As a friend, it’s meant more than I ever thought.”
The baker’s dozen tracks on These 13 are a seemingly straightforward blend of country and folk, bringing Bird’s guitar-and-fiddle desires to life. But the lyrics are littered with references from Mathus meant to beguile listeners and provoke Bird’s natural curiosity.
Even with the album having been finished for a few months, Bird still gets animated talking about Mathus’ rhetorical flourishes. And Mathus delights in his ability to keep Bird guessing.
“I like songs that have a mystery to them. A reference to a 19th-century riverboat in a song?” Bird marvels. “I’m fascinated by that kind of lore and what Jimbo means.”
“I’m not gonna tell you,” Mathus quickly teases.
Both Mathus and Bird are drawn to underutilized language and cultural expressions, what they mean and how they can be used in a song. It’s what connects Bird’s conservatory background with the traditions Mathus was raised in.
“There’s this kind of, in my reading habits, this lore and colloquial expression that’s no longer in circulation,” Bird says. “It’s fun bringing back and revitalizing a tired language. Like ‘High John,’ it took some time before I was like, ‘Oh, I get it!’ Most people will read it one way, when it’s really something else.”
“There’s a mandrake root called the High John the Conqueror root,” Mathus explains. “I still live in the Deep South, and we have this weird experience and language we put in songs. I earned as much of it as I could firsthand, playing with Black and white musicians. Some of it’s so obscure and hard to explain. It’s fun to throw it at Andrew and see how he responds.”
Peers with Plans
These 13 will be officially released this Friday. But that doesn’t signify the end of the Bird-Mathus collaboration.
They filmed a bunch of live music videos and on April 11 they’ll be performing a livestream set together. With touring up in the air there are no plans for in-person shows, but Bird would like to do a duo set at Newport Folk if that event can take place this year.
They’re also still sending each other songs and musical sketches, even during an interview to discuss These 13.
“We never carved out the space to do the duo thing before; it’s still being experienced. We’re still communicating, sending each other songs. Not all of them are meant to be collaborations,” Bird explains. “Jimbo just sent me a clip of half a song that I’m trying to figure out.”
“I just sent that a couple hours ago,” Mathus laughs. “There’s a real kinship between the two of us. This was a totally different experience (than 25 years ago) because we’re peers now. Ending it would be a real comedown.”