by: Stephan Masnyj
Big Thief has been riding a steady wave of acclaim since the release of their debut record Masterpiece in 2016. Adrianne Lenker’s lyrics often center on large epiphanies found in small moments; finding out that no one can “kiss away my shit” in a car ride on “Paul,” or the first moment of falling in love at a diner in “Masterpiece.” These heartfelt stories are wrapped up in fuzzy rock songs that have kept listeners captivated for months, and we spoke to guitarist/ songwriter Buck Meek about the inspiration behind these songs, Big Thief’s experience at SXSW, and what we can expect from the band in 2017.
SM: If I'm correct this is your second SXSW in as many years; coming around this time does it feel any different from you guys? I know Masterpiece hadn’t been put out yet so there was a lot of buzz around the band and when the record came it seems like the band hit a new level of popularity. Does it feel different to be back?
BM: Definitely. As far as SXSW shows we were able to schedule our shows a little more specifically. Like all the shows we're playing this year I'm really excited about, whereas last year I feel like we were sort of paying our dues a little bit; you know just kinda playing where we could get [booked]. We played some awesome shows last year too but there were a few more shows that were filler in between the big ones. This year everything we're doing this year is really exciting and a little more high profile. Of course we're doing the Luck Reunion at Willie Nelson's Ranch which is a big honor. Rachel Ray's thing will be awesome too.
SM: It seems like for a lot of bands SXSW is a sort of "make or break" moment, and even from hearing what you said about last year it seems like you guys tried to take the opportunity to play anywhere that you'd be able to be heard. Did it feel like that the first time around? That this was your best shot at a big break?
BM: We try to never feel like that, no matter how big the show is. We try to visualize any night as just a basic show to our friends. That's a meditation that our band tries to maintain no matter what so I guess we looked at it like that.
SM: I guess that's a good way to remain even keeled throughout the process while other people can tend to make a big fuss about everything around you.
BM: Exactly. And I'm from Austin. I'm from Wemberly which is south of Austin and I petty cabbed SXSW like seven years in a row before we played it last year, so I was going into it really comfortable with the city and the layout and everything. There was no mysticism behind it for me which I think helped too.
SM: From your perspective was it strange to always work around the festival and for the first time be on the other side as one of those bands that it seems like everyone was talking about in the area?
BM: Yeah that was really exciting for me. To be on the inside looking out was really fun. And I love the energy there. For me it's a gathering... and of course there's a whole bunch of controversy about SXSW as a corporation and there always will be. But as a musician, being there surrounded by musicians feels really powerful; it almost feels like the gathering of our tribe. It's like seeing the vans everywhere, all the leather jackets and guitar cases. It's just really exciting you know?
SM:Yeah. I've never bee here myself but I was looking around and noticed a sign that said "Live band vehicle parking only" and I thought it was funny to see such a specific designation like that in a city.
BM: Yeah totally. It's so cool. It feels like a mass migration of our people.
SM: You guys are all from different areas of the country. I know you worked with Adrienne (singer/songwriter for Big Thief) on a few EPs before Big Thief started, but how did you guys come together as a collective group?
BM: Well I had actually gone to a five week summer program at the Berklee College of Music when I was 14 or 15 years old to study the guitar. I didn’t like my roommate, he was a punk (laughs). So I was sort of scoping out the scene looking for a roommate and I met this kid named Max at the cafeteria and we became fast friends. We ended up switching roommates so we could room with each other and spent the five weeks skipping every class and running around Boston eating Krispy Kreme donuts and making trouble. We became really good friends. Then he went back to Israel. This was before Facebook and we were kinda just teenagers; we lost touch basically and didn’t talk for ten years.
Around the time Adrianne and I were touring the duo stuff we were in Brooklyn and ran into Max on the street randomly. So I talked to him for the first time in ten years. And Adrienne and I at that time had just started to write more Rock and Roll songs, because before we had been playing acoustic music. She got this electric guitar and started writing songs and we knew we needed a band and we ran into max around that time and started playing in the basement and found a drummer (Jason Berger), who played drums on Masterpiece. We booked our own tour and went on a month-long tour of like house parties and stuff. And at the end of that tour we made Masterpiece. Our dear friend James engineered the record which was a big help. We basically just had no money and wanted to make a record and we asked James about it and he was really excited about it so he helped us. At the end of that session we had to part ways with Jason (the original drummer), and Jason knew all the material by heart from engineering the session and started playing drums in the band.
SM: It seems crazy that you would run into your friend on the street ten years later. That must’ve been the most fortuitous chance occurrence in some time.
BM: It was. And he had just moved to New York to play music again for the first time in forever and we needed a Bass player so it all worked out well. Very serendipitous
SM: Speaking of New York and Brooklyn; despite being from different areas and backgrounds you guys are still considered a "Brooklyn" band. Do you feel like that city and that scene has had a big impact on your development? I've heard that the scene there is shrinking in many senses and it's harder for artists to thrive. Do you feel that in any sense?
BM: I think thats BS. I think New York is - in all of my travels all over the world - I think thats the healthiest music community I've ever scene by far. The most thriving. Yeah, I think it's thriving and probably always will. Just the nature of that city; it's so big and there's so many creative communities and they all serve as these venn diagrams for each other. Every band is constantly expanding and contracting into one another; everyone I know has like ten bands and they’re always falling apart and going on tour and getting too big and moving to different cities. I think it's a very living organism. Maybe the bands in NY don’t last as long as they do in other communities because its such a thriving place and the organisms are constantly eating each other. But I do think it's very alive. It's [alive] on a more energetic level, it's like more alive and inspirational because... I dunno it's hard to explain. Because it’s so alive I think everyone that’s a part of it is very inspired. Almost to the point where sometimes it can go too far in the sense that people's attention span can become very short with it. But it's powerful.
SM: I feel like NY has this restless energy where everyone is constantly moving 100 miles a minute, so I can imagine that would translate to an artist community where you have all of these people having so many ideas and almost busting at the seams trying to get them all out.
BM: Yeah. Like for me I can look at it from my perspective. I've been in NY for six years and it's like I moved there and I was a part of this band Moishe Circus. And then I started my own band for my songs, and as soon as that started cranking I started playing shows and building a scene. Then I started in Big Thief and that kind of overshadowed everything for a minute. When Big Thief had time off I would go back to my solo stuff. Then Adrianne and I started this little punk rock called Pencil that played a bunch of shows and started building this momentum. But ultimately Big Thief started touring really heavily. it's constantly expanding and contracting. I guess you could look at it as kinda tragic that all of these projects are falling by the wayside but its all part of the same movement. And everyone there seems to have that same experience. It can be really bittersweet. It can be really hard when we come back to New York after tour we like dip into this community that we're constantly in and out of now. it can be really sentimental.
SM: I can imagine it’s strange to come back to a community where you thought everything you knew was set is now totally different and people have changed, or come and gone and done other things. it's like a different place every time you come back
BM: Yeah. But it's never dead you know? It always just changes. That’s the way New York is. Neighborhoods are the same way. They're constantly eating each other.
SM: I’m curious to know how the writing process goes for you guys. Are the songs usually fleshed out by the time you hit the studio to record? Or do you sort of contribute your own parts as you're going through the recording process?
BM: It’s a little bit of both. With Masterpiece she had written most of those songs in the year or two prior to recording the record. She wrote a handful of them when we were just playing them as a duo. And then we put the band together and she wrote a handful more. And then “Interstate” was actually written in the van on the way to the studio. “Masterpiece” I think was written a couple of weeks before the recording session. We were at a little folk festival and Adrienne had just written that song on acoustic guitar. “Masterpiece” and “Interstate” were two songs we had never played before as a band until we got to the studio. Everything else I think we had been rehearsing a ton and playing during tour. A few things that we hadn’t even touched. Our producer Andrew Starlow who is one of our dearest friends was a big part of the arrangement process. Especially for the newer stuff like “Masterpiece”.
For example I think we started with the newer stuff during the recording process, because I think we just wanted to get in the zone. So we recorded “Vegas,” “Paul,” and “Real Love” first since we had pretty tight arrangements for those. And it went really smoothly. Towards the end of the session Andrew had heard “Masterpiece” being sung solo by Adrianne at some point. He had us all come out to the front porch where we recorded music. He had Adrienne teach us “Masterpiece” and the chords — but only by ear. He didn’t let us have our own instruments; he just had Adrianne sing us the song and we had to learn it by ear. After she played the song a few times, he had us repeat the chords like he was an elementary school teacher out loud like five times in a row. We went inside and we listened to Neil Young's "Danger Bird" on a studio super loud. And he had us go in and record it immediately without rehearsing it at all. I think we kept the second take. The first take there were a few errors but the second take was super fresh. But anyway the writing process is Adrienne is a songwriter and she always brings the song to the band and we hash out our parts together. Everyone brings their part to the table.
SM: I heard that you guys had a second record finished as far back as last year. Will that be coming out this year? Is it stylistically different than Masterpiece or in the same vein?
BM: Well I cant say too much about it yet, but we did start a record last year. We've had a lot of time to work on this one so we've been slowly finishing it. It should be coming soon in not too long.
SM: Is there anything listeners can look forward to on your tour this year? Is there new material being played live?
BM: We do have a ton of new material in the shows. We have been playing it all year. We were just in Australia and Adrianne just wrote us a new song there and we integrated it into our set. I think our set is becoming more dynamic. Masterpiece is super emotional and there’s a lot of heavy material on that record. A lot of our new stuff I feel like is maybe a little more ethereal or elegant. There's some really deep ballads that she's written lately. I think the dynamic of our set is expanding a bit which is nice. It’ll be a lot of fun.