BUCK MEEK – Interview

Foto-© Shervin Lainez

Auf dem neuen Solo-Album von Big Thief-Gitarrist Buck Meek (übrigens seinem ersten für 4AD, wo auch seine Hauptband und seine Bandkollegin Adrienne Lenker veröffentlichen) geht es um Liebe – und ein paar andere Dinge. Dinge, die größer sind als die Liebe, etwas, das die Liebe nicht direkt in Frage stellt, sondern im Gegensatz zu ihr steht. Eine Seelenfülle, oder eine Seele, die nach Fülle sucht. Die Songs wurden in den Bergen geschrieben: an kalten Quellen in der Serra da Estrela in Portugal, auf dem versunkenen Vulkan von Milos auf den Kykladen, im Valle Onsernone in den Schweizer Alpen (wo das Coverfoto aufgenommen wurde) und in der Santa Monica Range, wo Buck jetzt zu Hause ist – alles Orte, an denen seine neue Liebe geboren wurde. Gleichzeitig erkennt Meek selbst an, dass Liebeslieder am schwierigsten zu schreiben sind. “Keine Trennungslieder, sondern ein echtes Liebeslied, das ernsthaft geschrieben ist? Das ist heute ein Tabu”, sagt er. “Manchmal hat man das Gefühl, dass alle großen Liebeslieder bereits geschrieben wurden.” Die elf neuen auf Haunted Mountain klingen mal nach der Weiten Prärie seiner Heimat, nach Country, gar Americana, mal wieder nach dem Folk-Rock seiner Hauptband oder den verfrickelten Auswüchsen, die zuletzt auch immer wieder der britische First-Class-Folker Ben Howard präsentierte – immer aber richtig gut. Wir sprachen im Rahmen unserer The Space Between The Notes-Podcast-Reihe mit Buck Meek über das neue Album und vieles mehr – zu hören hier, zu lesen hier:

Hi Buck, I really love the new record, Haunted Mountain, and as soon as I heard the the first single that was sent out, I was very excited to talk to you about it. It’s a lot of love songs, and you’ve said that real love songs – which doesn’t necessarily mean break-up songs – are kind of taboo today, and they’re potentially the hardest to write because it’s easy to feel like all great love songs have already been written. I want to start by asking you what you define as a love song and asking what approach did you take during the writing and recording of this album to overcome that obstacle?
Yeah. Well, for me, an essential ingredient of a good love song is the truth. It must be earnest to some degree. It must be truthful and I’m definitely trying to surrender to the romantic love song with this album to some degree. I wrote a handful of these songs while falling in love with my wife but at the same time, I think I’m also trying to elaborate or to capture different realms of love as well, whether it’s platonic love or the love of a mother, or the love for a mountain, or the love for a place, the sense of home. And also, in talking about all of this kind of love, I think being honest about the challenges of love, the reflection, the necessity for reciprocity How it’s so difficult to to to really be in touch with another human being and how it brings up some of the hardest things and to really share into that process is to me one of the great values of love.

That really resonates with me. Just to go back to what you’re saying about love of a place or in this case, a lot of mountains, your albums are generally recorded in quite remote places. And these songs were written on a variety of mountains all across the world, from Portugal to the Swiss Alps to the Santa Monica Range, where you live now. How has your relationship to those places been affected by your songwriting? Because I feel as though you’re almost trying to define your relationship to them through songwriting.
Yeah. How beautiful. Yeah. I’m fascinated by this. I feel like there’s this phenomenon in that, I feel like we project our emotions on to material as humans, you know, like we kind of imbue meaning into inanimate material and also into our environment, our memories, our experiences, and our emotions, and the nature of our lives is very intertwined with our place. In songwriting, to take a step back, one thing I try to do in songwriting and one thing that I love about song is how it can create an environment to inhabit. I try to create an environment for all the senses to inhabit, to give a sense of the time of day, the time of year, the architecture, you know, the sound, the smell and the texture of a place. That allows me to inhabit a song to feel grounded as a listener and also as a writer. Often I find that when when you do create an environment of these materials, the emotional content or the story is inferred to it to a huge degree. It also leaves space for each listener to infer their own story into that. In regards to love songs specifically, I think it’s incredible how when you’re in love, you literally charge your environment with that, you know, like the light in the morning, or like the sound of bells. They’re sanctified by whatever experience I’m going through and that was one approach to these songs on this record was to try to create that kind of sanctified environment from within and then to make space for each person to inhabit that.

You do a very clever thing with narrative omission. If you take Lullabies, for example, which is a stunning song about the relationship between a mother, Ava, and her son, and it kind of starts off and she has this long and painful labour. And then she sings “You are my sunshine” to her infant child who then grows up to be a stockbroker. It also features this gorgeous fiddle section in the middle. I was really taken with this song when I first heard it, and I restarted it from the beginning, just as soon as it finished. And one thing that you do is, at the part where Ava says that she forgives him for something, we don’t know if he hurt her in some other way or if she disapproves of his life or what. You leave a very deliberate gap which gives the song a kind of impressionistic quality and makes time feel very slippery. I really, really loved the way that you did that.
Oh, thank you for saying that. It’s wild because I had actually finished pretty much finished that song without that verse at all, without the forgiveness line. But it felt like it needed something there. It felt like there was too much time between the verse before it and the verse after it. So I sat down with Matt Davidson to write a verse. We were talking with Julie, and she sent us some lines about something. He carried like the bones of her face with him into the world or something. He still carried her with with him in his DNA and then the refrain was about forgiveness and this kind of unconditional love. But then we went right into the studio to record it and it was so fresh I forgot the lyrics and I just left that space there because I forgot the end. So I sang the refrain, but I didn’t sing the verse. Then we listened back and it felt right somehow. So instead of redoing it, we just kept it like that. So it’s kind of a happy accident. But yeah, I try to leave a lot of space in songs and that’s one thing about the songs that I love is whenever there’s some space to breathe. I think that in regards to travelling, I think one reason I’m drawn to travel is I find it easier to focus when I’m just kind of stripped of my identity a bit, stripped of my home, my communities, my obligations. I think focus is the most important element of the creative process for me, just putting myself into a focussed work. It’s easier for me to do that when I’m just on the side of a mountain somewhere with a little backpack.

I read that during your recordings you banned mobile phones from the studio. Do you have a bad relationship to your phone and technology?
I mean, we all do. Every last one of us. We all have a bad relationship with our phones. They’re powerful tools, they’re volatile. I value my phone and my communications and my relations so highly, and I try to use this tool as much as I can for good, you know, for self-care and I actually use my phone a lot in my writing process. I have Rhyme Zone which is an incredible rhyming dictionary app. You can search for all kinds of different types of slant rhymes and you can search by syllable and reverse rhymes and you can search for poetic references and there’s all kinds of cool stuff. Of course voice recorder is really useful too. I use my phone a lot for writing, but I also find that whenever my phone dies or whenever I don’t have cell phone service, or if I choose to leave it at home, I feel much more at peace for sure. That’s one thing I really love about America is that there is still so much land, so much wild land here that does not have cell phone service. I spent a lot of time out there in the desert, way up in the mountains and out in the wilderness here that just has zero cell phone service, which is really, really nice.

Do you have a process that you you try to stick to? Can you set the scene a little bit for how a song grows into a fully formed thing? Is it true that you begin with mumbling abstract sounds alone?
Yeah. That’s the process that I’ve fallen into for the last few years that’s the most effective for me. I’ve gone through different chapters of process in my writing. At this point, I usually just sit down with my guitar and I start melodically. Typically, I’ll just try to find one little moment in one little melody that feels good to sing. That my body wants to sing. I try to just kind of ramble freely for a while, melodically, until I find a little chord progression and a little melody, even if it’s just a few measures of something that feels exciting to sing or feels good to sing. Once I have that melody, I’ll start just kind of creating word sounds, mumbling word sounds, and trying to let the words shape themselves based on the melodic rhythm or based on the shape of the melody itself. I’ll let the words kind of form abstractly without putting too much emphasis on any kind of narrative at first until maybe a theme appears, even if it’s just like one sentence. Then I’ll pull my notebook out and start hammering out iterations of that and unfolding it into a more complete idea. I think that the thing that I try to keep at the front of my mind throughout that whole process is trying to be honest because I try to just speak from a place of truth, from something I’m going through right now in that moment of writing or something that happened that day, something that my mother said or something that feels real as a starting point, even if it’s super simple. That’s another amazing thing about music, in the same way that sometimes our emotions can sanctify material, I think that music can sanctify words, even very simple words put to melody feel more sacred to me. So I try to trust that a little bit when I start a song and just go to the extreme of simplicity in the lyric and kind of let this synthesis of melody and lyric create space and then go from there.

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Well, you wrote the lead single Haunted Mountain, the title track, with Jolie Holland, with whom you wrote five of the eleven songs. What is it like for you to write songs in collaboration with people? Do you find it more challenging than doing on your own? What does your dynamic with Jolie bring to those songs specifically?
Jolie’s been my songwriting hero for a long time since I was in high school. I first heard her album Escondida, and she was a big influence on me growing up, and then she became a friend living in New York City. I think there’s three modes for writing with another person. There is a few songs that Jolie had written, words in a melody when she already had a theme, and she brought that to me to contribute lyrics for. Then there was the opposite where I had a melody or a lyrical theme that was fleshed out and I brought it to her to kind of contribute ideas. Then there was some songs that we really just like worked on from scratch together. Haunted Mountain was a song where she had two verses and a chorus written and she asked me to write a third verse to kind of finish the song. I approached it kind of like a haiku format almost, where I wanted to shift the direction with that third verse using her setup. She had mentioned that her approach with the song was kind of this love story to Mt. Shasta, which is this really big, powerful mountain in Northern California, which has a lot of history as this kind of mecca of spirituality. She had this experience where she saw Mt. Shasta for the first time. She kind of fell in love with this place but then she also spoke about seeking reciprocity with nature. So the verse I contributed was kind of about going to this mountain, going to this spring, the headwaters of the Sacramento River, as this fountain of youth and falling in and getting swept up in the waterfall and getting pushed under and pushed down river and almost drowning and being humbled by this power that you’re essentially exploiting and maybe at which point, like a real relationship with this place begins.

Did you write did you write Paradise together?
We did. So that was that was one where she sent me just the words of that first verse, almost like a concept. She was hoping to kind of redefine the blues with this song. She wanted to write a blues song, but not a blues song. And the theme was kind of like, hearing your partner or someone say something, but kind of half hearing it, not fully hearing what they said and your mind inferring deeper meaning onto that or when you look at it sideways or when you hear something halfway, you hear what’s beneath it. You hear the real depth of a person whenever you’re almost in a liminal space. That was the idea with her first lines. So I took that as a prompt and tried to write a song that had some element of the blues. I tried to really take it in like a different direction melodically and harmonically, and then of course unfolded the theme from there and integrated some imagery from Dante’s Inferno and the afterlife.

That song really reminds me of American Beauty era Grateful Dead because of the way the harmonies are done. What’s your relationship to the Grateful Dead?
I actually am not super close to the Grateful Dead’s music. I love it, American Beauty is probably the record I know the most, but I wasn’t thinking of them at all when I wrote that song. But I do love their harmonies and I think one thing that I recognise in their harmonies is that often they’re singing close harmonies with notes that are a half step or a whole step apart instead of a third, for instance, which introduces tension into the harmony. For instance, the 9ths, 11ths, 13ths vs. the third, the fifth, and the roots of the Triad chord. There’s tension in those tighter intervals that creates more complex colours. Essentially, if you draw a parallel to a colour palette, they would be like mixing colours instead of primary colours. That’s something that Jerry Garcia in his songwriting, I hear a lot of that. I think one way to achieve that for me as a songwriter in the foundation is to just write songs where the melody is integrating those notes. So Paradise is a good example of that. There’s definitely some some tension just built into that. The melody itself, some 9ths and 11ths and 13ths, for instance, or flat 9ths. There’s definitely some non triad chord tones in there. That’s one way to guarantee that whoever is writing a harmony vocal part is going to create some of that tension because even if they’re only singing the chord tones, if your basic melody has tension in it, then it’s built in. I love that sound of those close harmonies. Matt Davidson, who’s singing those harmonies, is like a master of writing harmony parts.

The last album, Two Saviors, was pretty lo fi, and there was a lot of room tone, which creates a lot of warmth in its own right. You made the decision to move towards a cleaner production for this record, and I just wondered where that came from.
Totally. Well, I think that my first record, my self-titled record, I made partially with my friend Andrew Sarlo as an engineer. Andrew also produced the first four Big Thief records, and over the course of recording those four big records with Andrew Sarlo, we learned a lot about the value of playing live together in a room and tracking all together with lead vocals and solos and the rhythm section all together. We learned the value of how often the first or second or third take is, often the best one. It has this vitality. As soon as you start repeating the song like 30 times, you lose something. As soon as you start to try to take control and put it to a click track and layer things and do things at it, it’s easy to lose the thread of the song. Somewhere in there, Andrew and I made my first solo record, and I was still learning that and we were doing a lot of layering. We did some live basics for sure, but I think all the vocals on my first record were layered on top after the fact. We worked really hard and we got it to a place we felt good, but I think by the time we recorded Two Saviors together with Andrew Sarlo, we had made at least three or four of the Big Thief records at that point. We had really come to understand our philosophy about recording live. So it was Andrew’s idea to record as live as possible, to go to the extreme. I was tracking my band in New Orleans in a house, just getting an old Victorian house in the Bywater and setting up an eight track tape machine and all dynamic mics so we could be as close together as possible. Dynamic microphones have very small patterns. They don’t take as much bleed from the room so you can get really close together in the room like we were literally on top of each other in that house. All the windows were open and we recorded it in one week and mixed it all in one week. I think Andrew wanted to go to the full extreme of shaking off the dust of the recording process and just capturing a band in a room with the limitation of of an old tape machine and dynamic mics, which inherently has a more lo fi sound. For this record, long story short, I guess it felt like the natural progression to bring that same intention of playing together in a room into a hi-fi environment. We all stood in a circle, no headphones, we played everything live. Almost all the vocals in this record were live. There was very few overdubs, but we wanted to capture that like with the most detail possible. So we did it on two inch tape with beautiful microphones, big condensers and stuff at Sonic Ranch Studio in West Texas. It’s basically just the way that every record in the sixties and seventies was made with really good gear all together live in a room in like a day.

Apart from music, what is the most fun thing?
I think the most fun thing is extreme sports for me I try to surf every day, and rock climbing and mountain biking. I was able to surf the bioluminescent tide a couple of years ago at night-time during the full moon, which was amazing. All the waves were lighting up like neon when they would break. I was imagining that if I got eaten by a shark that night, it would have been pretty cool to see a shark illuminated neon with like its neon teeth because you could see the dolphins swimming in there completely lit up like neon dolphins. So that would have been a pretty epic night to get eaten by a shark.

Mit den neuen Songs im Gepäck kommt Buck Meek dann schon vor der Veröffentlichung von Haunted Mountain am 25. August nächste Woche nach Berlin – für eine exklusive Show in der Kantine am Berghain! Wir präsentieren die Show und verlosen in diesem Zuge 2×2 Tickets! Ihr wollt hin? Dann schickt uns schnell eine Mail mit dem Betreff „Buck Meek Berlin“ und eurem Namen an gewinnen@bedroomdisco.de und mit etwas Glück versüßen wir euch Anfang nächster Woche den Wochenanfang!

Buck Meek live:
22.08.23 Berlin, Kantine am Berghain

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