Former Squirrel Nut Zippers collaborators Andrew Bird and Jimbo Mathus appear to come from different worlds. Bird learned music from a young age in the suburbs of Illinois as a Suzuki method student, while Mathus learned through his family’s musical lineage in Mississippi.
What started as a fateful meeting in 1995 when Squirrel Nut Zippers needed a fiddle player in Bird’s hometown quickly turned into a relationship that transcended the professional, and the collaborators have been blending their backgrounds together ever since. Over 25 years since their first encounter, the duo finally released These 13, an album born out of voice memos and canonized into the expansive lineage of folk music through a minimalist recording process.
Mathus’ Southern Gothic sensibilities bring out a more primal, stripped-back facet of Bird’s playing, and the two create a living, breathing collection of songs that examine the dusty corners of the human psyche. Set against the mesmerizing Ojai backdrop, a companion short film also titled These 13, exclusively premiering below, is a candid glimpse into the intense admiration the two have for one another, interspersed with recreations of the studio versions of the tracks.
Watch These 13 below and read Paste’s exclusive interview with the duo further down. You can buy tickets for their exclusive, one-night-only live stream this Sunday, April 11, at 8 p.m. EST here.
Paste: Before we begin to get into the nitty-gritty, the Ojai backdrop is stunning. Where did the decision come to film in that environment?
Andrew Bird: You know, not many people make records outside as a feature to it. I’m interested in making more records in the outdoors.
Jimbo Mathus: It was a timing issue, as well, because the pandemic was raging and we couldn’t risk infecting one another and our families. It was the perfect storm to film outdoors in nature. It’s so beautiful and unique.
Paste: “Poor Lost Souls” is the opening song of the film and is one of my favorites. What is the background of this powerful track?
Mathus: I wrote that song quite a while ago and I’ve been in the trenches of music for a couple of decades now. I’ve been really struggling. Every once in a while though, I’ll get a really interesting gig. About 12 years ago, I got hired to work on the Burlesque soundtrack and they put me up at the W Hotel in L.A. I’m a street walker, and I like to be on the streets drinking my coffee, writing, observing. I walk out of this incredible hotel close to Hollywood Boulevard and I was just shocked and appalled at what I saw there.
I continued to go there over the years with my band at the other end of Hollywood. You’re looking at the stars, the glamour, the millions of fortunes on the sidewalk and sharing the same sidewalk is the mentally ill, maimed and whatnot. It kicked off there, I shared it with Andrew, he really liked it and wrote his verse, and we grooved on that.
Bird: That was one of the first tunes we worked on together. I love that line “Look down and see the stars / Look up and see the gold / Look around and see these poor lost souls.” That sounds like John Prine or Waylon Jennings, any of those great songwriters where they can encapsulate something in just a few words that speak volumes.
This is where I’ve lived for the last seven years. I drive my kid to school right through the same neighborhood and I see it every day. Jimbo doesn’t see it every day. He’s in Mississippi and they got their own issues there. Hollywood is very extreme, and the wealth disparity is so extreme. I tried to write a verse from the point of view of someone who sees it every day and struggles not to become numb to it, or lose their humanity and compassion.
Paste: That describes your backgrounds very well. The juxtaposition between you two must be novel to some. How do work together and separate to create such ever-evolving music?
Mathus: I think we take the best of where we come from and combine them as we did all those years ago. We’ve both been on the same philosophy, all these decades doing what we love and what we study. We combine them with a psychic connection between the two of us. I have Faulkner in my background but also an artistic desire to create on my own. I wanted to characterize the guys I grew up playing with and embody their personalities, the way they handle the bandstand and music. I added my own imagination and curiosity to when Andrew and I met. We were basically lockstep together at that time and still are.
Bird: If we were to do a graph of where we’re coming from and where we’re going, we meet coming from different realms, highbrow and lowbrow, or refined or rough. I grew up in the North Shore of Chicago, which isn’t much different from the Manhattan arts scene. I was never a model classical trainee but nonetheless I went through conservatories and played in orchestras, but was always interested in getting to something more rooted. I met Jimbo and he helped seal the deal and take me to a journey through Southern culture and music, where people were doing it in a social, everyday context, playing in their kitchens.
Mathus: I didn’t know we would work so seamlessly together. Before this album, there was a long period there. We never talked that much before in the old days. We were constantly working.
Bird: But even with the demos you sent me before we went to New Orleans in ’98 or whenever that was, they struck me back then as being totally gold. So good. There was one where you did overdubs with yourself, and you were both the preacher and the congregation. I thought that was brilliant.
Mathus: A lot of my closest allies like my demos better than anything else.
Bird: Exactly, so when we started communicating with text and voice memos, it was great. 20 years ago he would’ve sent me a cassette or something. Now it’s more instantaneous. I think technology is making things less personal, but it’s weird that we’re making this analog record and using technology in this way. He’d send me something and within half an hour I’d write a counterpoint to that response.
Paste: You two have been working this way for a few years, way before this became the norm for many collaborators due to the pandemic. How have you adapted to this technology while also not losing your desire for analog processes?
Mathus: It was a combination of Andrew and I. He had the initial vision and I used my most easily accessible technology: my phone. We recorded with the old RCA ribbon microphones back in the old days. We used the same techniques now, but Andrew was specific about this being simple with a lot of air and breath, and no overdubs.
Bird: I wanted to get as close to those demos as possible. Once you get into bass and drums, it starts to become a little too ironed out, because you’re having to communicate with another two musicians and have to standardize things a little bit. I wanted there to be room for when Jimbo doesn’t feel like going to the four chord and I can follow along. It’s hard to do that with other musicians. We can also do the vocals live. I like a certain realism in records, and if the song speeds up and slows down, it’s like a picture of some building covered in moss and mold, leaning to the right a little bit. That’s how it should sound.
(laughs) That sums it up. Mold and maybe some ferns.
Paste: It seems like you’ve been able to free yourselves from a lot of these expectations that come with the normal recording process. Was it strange hearing yourselves in this way?
Bird: I found out new interesting things about my own voice on this album, like singing a little lower on “Dig up the Hatchet,” with this Leonard Cohen thing going on. And then what’s the other one? “Burn the Honky Tonk”! Why can’t I sing like that on my own songs?
Even some of the fiddle solos, not just my singing voice, made me realize how completely uninterested I was in impressing anybody. You work with great musicians but they get off a little too much on their own record collections and what they can do. That happens in bluegrass and country and Americana music, with this player demonstration thing going on. I wanted my solos to be just about tone and simple gestures. Even with my songwriting, I keep using John Prine as an example, but it’s about keeping it simple. It’s the way you subtly phrase something.
Mathus: If you have a strong foundation, you have a strong house, especially with soul brothers like us. The singing blended so well. It wasn’t anything we practice or even tried. We never sang harmonies like that 20 years ago.
Paste: You two possess such an intense knowledge of different pockets of culture and history. Do you consider yourselves historians in a way, especially in preserving and creating old American roots music?
Mathus: It’s a lifelong process of research. I mean, I taught myself Latin to read Faulkner.
Bird: We never like to present things in an academic way, but at the same time when I was thinking about doing this film, I was thinking of how to do it in such a straightforward way without trying to romanticize anything. It’s this fine line between you not wanting it to be done in an academic way, but at the same time, we’ve learned a lot over the years and people might be interested to hear it played. We don’t want to present it in a dry, academic way. We’ve always wanted to jump in and participate In the culture.
Mathus: We’ve done a lot of time in American music. A lot of my inspiration comes from literature. I get intrigued by a topic through history or by fiction, and that happens a lot. For me, it’s so intertwined. One thing I did learn over the pandemic was that I have to create. It’s a component of me. It’s a basic impulse to me. I really did gain a deeper appreciation over this whole lockdown, and that was really affirming. To me, it gives me a lot of hope.
Paste: Do you think there’s a difference between being a musician and a writer?
Bird: I admire novelists for the discipline, but music is less of a voluntary thing. You can’t have office hours. You can, but we’ll still be up in the middle of the night. You can ask a writer why they did this or that, but with musicians, it’s a hard question to answer. You have to tell a story in three and a half minutes. It’s more about the lines like “Look down and see the stars.”
A novelist or poet doesn’t have to compromise with a melody. There’s a lot of negotiations going on between the melody and the words to find the right thing. It’s a constant negotiation, and usually, the melody has the upper hand.
Mathus: I would agree. Luckily, we have the whole folk canon at our disposal, so when we’re writing something, we can always drop back and pick up a line from Charlie Patton or Sister Rosetta Tharpe, or whatever artist that dropped a lyric that we can fit into our narrative.
Paste: Finally, you called Andrew your “soul brother” earlier. What does that mean to you?
Mathus: You meet a lot of people as a writer, entertainer, all that, but there’s just one or two people that you can never be apart. You can never not be your best together. That’s what Andrew and I are. We were 20 years ago, and we are now. That’s the beautiful thing about music, right? It can be so unexplainable.
Bird: Yeah, 20 years ago I was enthralled with Jimbo. I was like 22 or 23, and I would’nt have imagined he would reciprocate that. I thought he was doing me a favor for sure.
Mathus: You can have people be together in this way over so many years and pitfalls musicians go through where they lose their spark, creativity or connections. It’s rare to go over this long span of time and neither one of us lost it. Who knows the same thing we had?
Jade Gomez is Paste’s Assistant Music Editor, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast.
Listen to Andrew Bird’s 2007 Daytrotter session below.