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Musician Andrew Bird tells us about scoring FX comedy Baskets and finding inspiration at Costco

Also: the power of whistling and living in Zach Galifianakis's house.

Matthew Eisman/Getty Images

Baskets is a funny comedy, in the sense that it's frequently hilarious as well as very, purposely odd. Zach Galifianakis plays Chip Baskets, a frustrated man who has grand visions of being a French clown (stage name: "Renoir"), but he flunked out of his Parisian clown school and now has to suck it up at home in the dusty deserts of Bakersfield, California. Helmed by Galifianakis, Louis C.K., and Portlandia and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! director Jonathan Krisel, Baskets is a determined, bizarre show, wringing jokes and sadness from the most banal situations.

Part of Baskets' appeal is its very specific feel, which combines Chip's fantasies of Parisian glamour and self-pitying cigarette breaks in his mother's coral-hued bathroom with Bakersfield's rickety rodeo and numerous strip malls. Krisel captures all this imagery beautifully, but he's also got a secret weapon: an original score by Baskets composer Andrew Bird.

When I saw Bird's name in the show's credits, it just made sense. Bird is a meticulous, prolific, and deeply empathetic musician. His instrumentation leans on strings, percussive interludes, and his signature whistling, which can bring a song into happier focus or send it careening off into a despondent aside.

He is, in other words, a perfect fit for the world of Baskets.

I recently caught up with Bird on the phone to talk about how he got involved with Baskets, why whistling is so personal for him, and living in Galifianakis's house.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Framke: How did you get involved with Baskets?

Andrew Bird: I’ve known Zach for a while now, and he called me up when he was developing the show and said he wanted me to do the music for it. Of course I just said, "Absolutely."

CF: How long have you known Zach?

AB: About five, six years. I think [we met] through Largo, a club here in LA. … I was on tour for a long time, and I stopped in Venice instead of going back to Chicago. I lived there about 10 months, and I stayed in his house. That’s when I got to know him. He wasn’t living there, he just had me staying there. But that’s when we first became friends.

CF: Did you know much about Baskets when he asked you to be a part of it?

AB: Yeah, he gave me the synopsis. What he kind of broke down for me was the contrast between the sort of highfalutin’, highbrow Parisian world and the Bakersfield world. That was the first thing I started working with … that chasm between those two things. Zach was talking about Bakersfield being Costco and Applebee’s. Pretty much Anywhere, USA.

FX

Chip Baskets tries (in vain) to make Bakersfield work for him. (FX)

Of course the holy grail for most music composers when it comes to TV shows is the theme, the title sequence. [Like] Six Feet Under, such a great format. It’s better than a music video because it’s got this context to it. It sets everything up for the whole episode. I got excited to write a song for that, and then … it started to go by the wayside. There’s just not enough time.

But that’s where I started — I was trying to write a theme that encapsulated Bakersfield. I ended up writing a piece of music with the idea of it being a theme, and it’s a very complex piece of music, talking about beige strip malls and substructure parking lots.

It’s actually based on an experience I had in a Costco — that was before I knew Costco was a character in the show. But I was working on a song based on how every time I go into a massive big-box store, with those massive concrete floors, I feel like … my life’s energy gets sucked out through my ears into the concrete, down to the pylons in the substructure. I pictured going down there and getting fossilized in the limestone.

So those two things kind of mingled at the same time. It actually ended up being a song on my record that’s about to come out.

A lot of times I’ll turn stuff down because I think, "You don’t need me to do this." But with [Baskets], I thought I could do something cool that would go beyond everything obvious. At least I hope. You could just put some string quartet music in there for the highbrow, and whatever else for the lowbrow and call it a day, but I just felt like I could do something more with this.

CF: You scored the scene in the pilot where Chip accepts that he can't be Renoir; he's now just "Baskets." When you composed for that, what kind of source material did you have at your disposal?

AB: I only had the script to work with. It’s a very different way to work than [working] to picture, although it can sometimes yield arguably better results. It’s sometimes a preferable way to work when a director has a very, very specific idea, and then I’m not worrying about [matching notes to a] time code. I’m just worrying about writing a good piece of music. But I was not even supposed to go off the script. I was just supposed to do a music library for them to pull from. But I read the script pretty carefully, and I couldn’t not think about specific themes.

When I’ve done comedy stuff in the past — I did a few films, like the Muppets movie when it was revived, Flight of the Conchords — [I was] trying to understand the line. Where do drama and sincerity play into it? [Baskets] is really interesting in that regard.

So I kind of set about creating pieces that were excessively dramatic — taking it two steps further with the pathos. Often for comedy stuff there’s a "backpedaling" of sorts, is what I call it. Like, what I’d call the "cue" for spin class. There’s something that pedals. Usually that’s entirely percussion, keeping things going while the absurdity devolves.

CF: When you were playing to the French aspects of Chip’s fantasies, which come out when he’s trying to be Renoir, what did you draw inspiration from?

AB: Orson Welles’s Third Man, that zither piece. Gypsy jazz, classic bohemian is what I associate with Paris.

Then there’s the times when that gets transposed onto Bakersfield, which is of course a contrast. But those are the references I used to play a lot of, like Django [Reinhardt]’s stuff, when I was younger. Then I see how that stuff kind of mixes with Debussy, [Francis] Poulenc, early-20th-century stuff that you associate with "high culture" in France.

There’s these sort of obvious associations with [my] whistling. This thing for me goes beyond kitschy. It’s a very personal instrument for me, even more so than the violin. It’s always been this thing I never intend to do, and then it sounds so damn good. It’s so easy to do phrasing with whistling that’s almost impossible to do with anything else.

It’s incredibly easy, of course. I’ve whistled all day long since I was four years old. But it always surprises me how effective and emotional it is. I think they had that mind when they asked me to do [Baskets], too.

CF: Was it a little different working with a series throughout episodes? Like, were you thinking about character development at all?

AB: No. I think that would’ve been somewhat academic. I could pretend right now that I was, and sound important, but I can’t pretend.

CF: That's okay!

AB: I keep coming back to not [being able to] work to picture. If I looked at picture, of course I would have had more control, and would’ve been more entirely my vision. But not looking to picture, I had more freedom. So it’s a trade-off.

But I carefully read the entire season and got a pretty clear picture. Now that I see it, I’m like, "Yeah, they did it. That’s kind of how I pictured it."

You know, people are characterizing the show as about a man-child who kind of hates life and is struggling, saying that’s kind of a common trope these days. But what I take from it — and what I think people can identify with — is that it’s not necessarily a male thing or a female thing. It’s just a human thing. A lot of people want to be Renoir, and they end up being Baskets. And then they have to deal with it.

I think that’s the most profound thing about the show, and there’s not a lot of that. There’s a lot of the arrested development guy in comedy, but I think this is a lot deeper than that.

Baskets airs Thursdays at 10 pm on FX.