BIG THIEF – ” The Album’s Story So Far “

Posted: August 17, 2021 in MUSIC
Big Thief

Adrianne Lenker’s enthusiasm remains undimmed. Lenker is the singer, guitarist, and songwriter for Big Thief, the most vital band of 2019. Back in May of that year, Big Thief released one of the best albums of the year with U.F.O.F. Rather than ride the wave of acclaim, they’re making a deeply uncustomary move for almost any band, let alone one who just experienced such a breakthrough: If art proves that power is vulnerability, then Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker is one of the most powerful voices in music today. This much was clear from the release of breakthrough albums “Masterpiece” and “Capacity” and has since been reaffirmed furthermore by widely acclaimed albums “U.F.O.F.” and “Two Hands” as well as Lenker’s solo work. Big Thief’s music is its own introduction: deeply intimate, unpretentiously queer, seamlessly blending the autobiographical with the narrative to create a sound that is both frank and steeped in dreamy nostalgia. In October that year they released their second great album of the year, “Two Hands”. These two albums are very different, but taken together they demonstrate the range and emotional honesty that have quickly made Big Thief one of the most compelling bands working today. In addition to her musical talent, Lenker is also a skilled visual artist. She mentions that she’s never had lessons, and doesn’t practice as much as she’d like, but she’s thrilled that she gets to do so. She says it’s all about showing up for yourself.  Big Thief’s “experiments with sound” began in 2014, when Lenker was just 21. After graduating from the prestigious Berklee School of Music, she moved to New York and met Buck Meek in a neighbourhood convenience store. Bonded by a shared love of classic folk-rock artists like The Band, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Fleetwood Mac, the pair started playing music together, and eventually saved enough money to buy a van to tour in. Lenker and Meek travelled the East Coast as a duo, and recorded an album under the name Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek, before officially forming Big Thief with Oleartchik and former drummer Jason Berger in 2015. Together, the quartet scraped up enough money and gear to make a record in a friend’s house in upstate New York, which became Big Thief’s arresting 2016 debut, “Masterpiece”. Not long after, Big Thief’s music caught the ear of Luke Temple (Here We Go Magic), who brought them on tour, and connected them to Saddle Creek Records, as well as their first booking agent. Their stunning breakthrough record, 2017’s “Capacity”, followed shortly after.  Big Thief’s music can very often achieve a beauty that feels as though it has always existed, speckled with the wisdom and humanity of Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell. In many ways, they seem like a band that could have existed and accrued a fervent fanbase in nearly any era from the ’60s onward, sharing bills with Pete Seeger, R.E.M., or Vashti Bunyan. But fashion-wise, Lenker seems to be taking her cues from the early ’90s goth scene today. Lenker has the sort of backstory that seems ready-made for a biopic. Among her fans, it’s already become somewhat legendary. She was born into what she has called a religious cult in Indianapolis, which her parents left when she was four. For a while, Lenker, her parents, and her two siblings were homeless, either living in a van or with various family acquaintances. Her father was a musician, and she started playing his guitar at the age of six. “And then I came to him with a song written. It was an angry song. I was angry. But the one that I remember even more clearly, was the one that I wrote when I was 10,” she continues. “That’s when I really started getting in a flow of writing, and that one was called ‘So Little Life.’ It was basically what I still write about.” She starts to faintly sing, her voice as fragile as some of the most exposed moments on her albums. “‘So little life to live, so many words to say/ When I stop and try to say them, everything fades away/ When I drift out of this dream world, it’s usually just in time to realize everything will be fine.”

Lenker is, as you have probably surmised by now, an extremely polite person. As such, I get the sense that she is too nice to not at least make an attempt to answer a question even if I can tell she’s not exactly thrilled to be talking about the more headline-ready aspects of her backstory, as she perhaps senses that it could overshadow her already voluminous musical achievements.  “Well, I mean, it was strange. That religious group was interesting. But also there was conflict beyond that,” she says. “We all need ways of processing things. I think I was called to music because it was this thing that was always there for me that I could pour my heart into safely.”

She says there’s “not any one religion or faith that I’ve subscribed to, but I value all perspectives, because I think that there’s so much to be gleaned from many different religions and spiritualities. I don’t like it when religions take it to the point where they discredit all other religions, because how could one sector of people have figured it out and know that that’s it? But I do think that there’s so much beauty in a lot of the stories or scriptures. And there’s so much more studying that I want to do.”

When asked if her upbringing turned her off to stricter religious observance, she replies, “I never went through a wave of hating Christianity, even though my parents were born-again Christians, and there were a lot of ideas that were being practiced that I think were misguided. ‘You’re going to hell if you do this or this or this. This is evil. This is sinful, to watch these films or to let the Bible touch the floor or to pray without a head covering or to name your children non-biblical names.’ 

Her dad started taking her to open mic nights when she was 12, and it was indeed as awkward as you might imagine. “People were always like, ‘Whoa, she’s only this age and she’s doing this?’ I was always the youngest person in any group. I had a band and I didn’t go to high school, all my friends were older than me,” she remembers. “It was pretty cool to have such a focus at that age, but also it alienated me from a lot of people my age. So I felt pretty lonely and I didn’t really have many friends when I was a kid.”     She stresses that this was her decision: “It wasn’t imposed on me at all. I wanted it.” Her dad was managing her, and raised money from investors to record a few albums. “Naturally, as I was only 13 or 14, I wasn’t really old enough to have all the tools and mechanisms to realize my own vision, so I was just part of the vision of the producer and my father and the people around me,” she says. “It was basically my schooling because I was always in the studio, but when we finished the project, I was kind of like, ‘Holy hell.’”“Think of how much you grow between 12 and 14 years old,” she continues. “I got into Elliott Smith and Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and I was like, ‘This doesn’t resonate with me. I want to make music on my terms and in a different way and I don’t even know what that is yet, but I think I want to go to school.’” She decided she wasn’t ready for a music career just yet, and instead wanted to learn more about “my craft.” (You can find her teenage album from 2006 if you look hard enough, though she doesn’t consider it part of her official discography.)It was difficult for her to break the news that she wasn’t ready. “I had to separate from my dad because that’s naturally what happens anyway when you’re a teenager, you push away from your parents,” she says. “But I had this added layer of a music career that was tied to him.” After earning her GED, she went to the Berklee College Of Music on a scholarship provided by Susan Tedeschi, singer and guitarist for the Tedeschi Trucks Band. When I ask her if she ever wonders what her life would be like if she had gone ahead and pursued her music career at the age of 14 and perhaps had achieved an ’00s style guitar-pop teen idol career analogous to Michelle Branch or Avril Lavigne, she shoots the idea down as forcefully as I’ve her heard talk in the time I’ve spent with her.“ I just don’t think it would have been possible for me. I’m too stubborn,” she says. “I think I would have been like, ‘This goes against my spirit. No thanks.’ I just don’t think I would have been able to melt into it at all.”***At Berklee, Lenker finally got to have a normal, if quite bohemian, young adult life: learning music, making friends, dumpster diving, skateboarding, and forming a band that had two drummers but no name. (They never settled on one.) During one show, she played with a band fronted by Buck Meek, who had already graduated from Berklee by that point. Meek grew up immersed in music in the small town of Wimberley, Texas. His mother gave him his first guitar lesson when he was “five or six. “My little hometown was this refuge for a lot of the old outlaw songwriters and Austin musicians from the ’60s and ’70s who moved out whenever the tech bloom blew up there,” he recalls. “So Ray Wylie Hubbard and Butch Hancock from the Flatlanders and some of the guys from Bob Wills’ band were out there. And they all took me under their wing, one way or the other. He began playing rhythm guitar for old-school types such as Slim Richey, “who played with Herb Ellis back in the day,” and Django Porter, who’d played guitar with Merle Haggard. He would perform with their bands at roadhouses, barbecues, private parties, funerals, weddings. “But not for money necessarily,” he says. “Just for the love of it.” Though the musicians were all in their 50s and 60s, Meek doesn’t recall anyone thinking it was strange that they had a 13-year-old guitar player in their band.  In Texas, I think it’s part of the culture,” he explains. “It’s passed down through the generations like that. The summer after he graduated from Berklee, his ragtime band Mobtet played with Lenker’s unnamed group, which “was just blowing my mind,” he remembers. “And she was so incredible. Everyone was dancing.”  

Lenker had already released a solo album, the first one she really counts, called “Hours Were The Birds”. She was considering moving back to Minnesota, where her family had settled, after graduation, but decided to give New York a chance as she’d had a nice time playing Manhattan’s Rockwood Music Hall one afternoon with her band. Meek and Lenker met the first day she moved to New York. “She had just stopped into Mr. Kiwi’s to get a juice on her way to the first apartment,” he remembers. They ran into each other at the grocery store and he offered to show her around the city.

“She’s opened up, I think, more with all this traveling. But at that point, she was pretty reserved. And she had this gaze that would just like cut through you like a snow wolf,” Meek says. “You would be speaking to her and she’d be looking at you so intensely. She’d be listening very deeply but not humouring you with any kind of response.”

They quickly fell into a musical rhythm, “playing old John Prine songs and writing songs together.” “All she wanted to do was play music,” he says. “I think pretty quickly it was clear that we had chemistry, and I think it was mostly rhythmic. Her guitar parts are really intricate, but there’s a lot of asymmetry in the fingerpicking. They’re super rhythmic but they are kind of crooked. The time’s changing a lot but there’s this pulse, and I had been playing rhythm guitar my whole life, so I think I was able to tap into that with her.” They started playing house shows and eventually started touring as a duo, cutting the collaborative A-sides and B-sides EPs together during off-hours at the studio that Andrew Sarlo, Lenker’s friend from Berklee, worked at. And then at some point, Lenker saved up enough to buy an electric guitar. They released two EPs of music they wrote on the road under their original moniker Buck and Anne, which was later released by Saddle Creek Records as one unified album “A-sides and B-sides” featuring a photo of the couple next to their white conversion van which they’d named Bonnie. These songs can be more comfortably categorised as folk in comparison to Big Thief’s output, but they maintain that particular Lenker brilliance: a tender understanding and melancholy that is indicative of someone wise beyond their years. ‘Let me know reasons why we change,’ she sings on Kerina‘Why our bodies are more than just breath and veins.’

“She started writing these heavier, more rock ‘n’ roll songs. And so we figured we needed to build a band around that,” Meek says. They found drummer Jason Burger, and Meek then ran into bassist Max Oleartchik, who he had met years ago when they were roommates at a Berklee Music summer program for teenagers. He didn’t even know his old friend had come back from his native Israel, until they ran into each other on the street in Bushwick. “We needed a bass player and he just walked up to us, basically,” Meek says. “Manifested for the band.”Meek and Lenker named the group Big Thief after an idea they learned in a song writing workshop in Texas about “a trickster or thief that borrows from the collective conscious, and regenerates ideas and integrates them into his or her identity.” The newly formed quartet recorded Masterpiece with Sarlo and engineer James Krivchenia, who took over for Burger when he left the band.

“It marked the beginning of our creation, our creative process together as a band,” Lenker says. Regarding the title: “It was a joke in a way, because if this album is just all of us putting our hearts in and it’s the best we can make, it already is a masterpiece being what it is.  They recorded the follow-up, “Capacity” six months later, shortly after signing with Saddle Creek. The next time they hit the recording studio, they would only take five days between albums. 

“Capacity” feels like Big Thief’s most autobiographical record to date, although it remains unclear which stories are Lenker’s own and which are picked up from a life on the road. The themes return with weighted preoccupation to motherhood and family. On Mythological Beauty she confesses ‘I have an older brother I don’t know/he could be anywhere.’ This album is particularly striking for its uncensored honesty. Lenker shares details of fraught relationships as an adult next to her memories of being hit on the head by a railroad spike as a child in a freak accident; her mother sitting in the back seat ‘praying, “Don’t let my baby die.” Lenker invites the listener into her most intimate memories, but the abrupt creak and thud of recorded footsteps on a staircase in Pretty Things gently reminds us that we are in fact strangers on the outside, looking in.

Though it took a little while for some critics and fans to catch on, “Masterpiece” and “Capacity” released in 2016 and 2017, respectively — showed a band that already had themselves figured out.  They alternated between scrappy and hooky indie-rock punchers such as “Real Love” and “Animals,” and ballads such as “Mythological Beauty” and “Great White Shark” that set Lenker’s empathic voice against chords that grew around each other with gentle force.

Everyone quit their job (Lenker was a server in a ramen restaurant, Meek did everything from carpentry to delivering CSA vegetables via bicycle) to tour incessantly. In February of last year, Big Thief decamped to a cabin in Topanga Canyon, where Meek now lives, and set up an eight-track to demo songs.  It has been two years, and in that time Adrianne had just written so many songs. She writes a lot. So there were 50 songs that we felt could go on the record,” Meek says. (In case it wasn’t already clear just how prolific Lenker is, this was after already releasing a solo album, “Abysskiss” late last year. By the time “Two Hands” arrives, she will have released three albums within 12 months.  For a month we went through every song and built arrangements and hashed them out. It quickly became apparent to the band that they had two albums’ worth of material. But Lenker says, “We didn’t want to make a double album, because we felt it was too dense, especially for these particular songs. We just wanted each to have its own focus, and so pretty early on, we knew that we were going to make two records, and we knew that we wanted them to be very contrasting.  Big Thief, Sarlo, and engineer Dom Monks went to Bear Creek Studios in rural western Washington last summer to record “U.F.O.F.”, an entrancing collection of cosmic folk songs that was immediately deemed a classic and one of the year’s best when it was released in May. A few days after they finished work on that album, everyone went down to the Southwestern studio Sonic Ranch in the small town of Tornillo, Texas, about 30 miles away from El Paso, to record Two Hands, the more visceral and earthbound of the pair. If “U.F.O.F.” is the spirit, then “Two Hands” is the body. 

“I feel like they’re siblings. They come from the same place, and all the songs were written in the same time span, and they were forming in the womb of all of our spirits. So there’s some connective DNA, but they’re very different beings,” Lenker says in the park, remembering the two albums’ origins.

“U.F.O.F.” is meant to be more focused on the immeasurable, sort of suspended ethereal playing with textures and colours and layering in the production, staring out into the abyss,” she says. “And “Two Hands” is more the micro, zooming into the blood and tissue and guts of being a human, the raw, bare, naked bones, not much layering, capturing just our performances in the room, just very dry, no reverbs, just skin and flesh and human, finite, physical. But I think each of them contains parts of the others.”

U.F.O.F”  was Big Thief’s third album in as many years, in which ‘F’ stands for ‘Friend.’ “Making friends with the unknown.. all my songs are about this,” Lenker has said of the album “If the nature of life is change and impermanence, I’d rather be uncomfortably awake in that truth than lost in denial.” At this point Big Thief had already been living and writing alongside each other for some time; Buck and Lenker had divorced and evolved their relationship into what they now understand as a “deep friendship”; and so when the band arrived at the studio, they not only knew each other but also these songs on a level which allowed them to be their most experimental and spontaneous yet.

The parallelism extends beyond the sound of the two albums and into their subject matter. U.F.O.F. is about being comfortable with the unknown, leaning into the mystery of life, of accepting that life is a moment that will pass, and you can embrace that or not. “You let go of everything you have, of everyone you love and even of your own body throughout the course of this life,” she says. “You could be completely numb to it all, but then you wouldn’t feel the incredible beauty of experiencing all of that as well.”

If U.F.O.F. concerns matters of impermanence and the greater mysteries of the world, then Two Hands is very much about the practical realities of life on Earth. Here, Big Thief show their skill at writing searing, perceptive songs about the ills that never seem to go away. “The Toy” addresses gun violence; “Shoulders,” police brutality; and “Forgotten Eyes,” homelessness and “the unheard voices that exist.” There are also plentiful outcries in the album, such as on “Shoulders” and “The Toy,” concerning humanity’s ongoing destruction of the planet.

“I keep trying to break through the numbness that washes over everything, that keeps people from being awake, where you can feel that rush of clarity that you’re part of the earth and that you feel something that’s connected between all of us,” she says. “I’ve just been trying to find a way to write about things from a place that I know resonates within my core rather than just stuff I agree with. How can we reach people? We’re taking more than we need and depleting and wounding the earth, and we can all feel it.”

Big Thief are a band guided by instinct and feeling. They never like to overthink anything. “I don’t think we should ever play anything more than we should ever have to,” Lenker says. “Once you play a song seven times, you’re going downhill  for us, anyway. It’s usually within those first few times of playing it that it’s the best, even if it’s full of imperfections.” When the band thought they were rehearsing the single “Cattails,” a jaunty ode to making peace with feeling infinitesimal that Lenker had finished that morning, Monks secretly began recording them, and that’s what you hear on U.F.O.F. “We walked into the control room and it was captured, that was it,” she says. “We didn’t have to work at it at all.”

Big Thief - Two Hands

In contrast to the wash of spectral bath of its sister album, Two Hands has some of the loudest and most caustic songs that Big Thief have done yet, including the protest anthem “Not.” “We were in Texas and it was like 120 degrees,” Meek says, “And so we just went for it.”

Big Thief released “Two Hands” just five months after “U.F.O.F” and christened it the “earth twin” to its “celestial” sister. All but two songs feature purely live vocal takes which relish the peatey quality of Lenker’s natural voice. Recorded in the dry heat of the desert, “Two Hands” combines the unfiltered intimacy of “Capacity” with the franker musicality of “U.F.O.F” to create some of their most impactful work yet. These are the songs Lenker stated she is the most proud of, “I can imagine myself singing them when I’m old… Musically and lyrically, you can’t break it down much further than this. It’s already bare-bones.”

They all decided to focus on live takes, with few overdubs for the album, giving them even less room to think too much. “There’s got to be some inherent magic that just makes you feel everything, and then you go from that, never building on something in order to fix it or to mask it,” says Lenker. “We would play a song, and we’d hear it back in the studio. That had to be it. We’re not going to add much.”

Ahead of U.F.O.F., Big Thief left Saddle Creek and signed with 4AD, the sort of independent label for whom the term “venerable” is too small; Meek is especially happy to be on the same label as the Breeders and Cocteau Twins. The band knew it was the right fit when Ed Horrox, head of A&R, heard their early demos and started air-drumming along.

Big Thief are, at best, indifferent to the business side of the music industry, and much of their music feels out of time, divorced from any particular current style or movement. (I was surprised to discover the band members all have personal Instagram accounts.) “I don’t really study the trends so much, but I tune into things that make me feel something — and that’s all over the place,” Lenker says. She proudly claims: “We’re song-based, definitely, and record-based, and not just singles on Spotify. We always think of things in terms of how it would translate on vinyl.” The band’s managers and team were largely supportive of the idea to put out two albums in a year, even understanding that the second album might not receive as much attention compared to U.F.O.F. Though Meek says there were some devil’s advocate arguments about whether the band might confuse listeners or flood the market, Big Thief ultimately felt it was best to do what felt best.Big Thief do not bring a lighting person on tour, none of the members wear the in-ear monitors that most musicians use to hear themselves while they play, and Krivchenia does not play on a drum riser, which Meek says tends to annoy the hell out of the stagehands at music festivals. All four of them play together all in a straight line in the centre of the stage, practically on top of each other, the intention being that all of the members can maintain eye contact with each other throughout the entire show. 

In 2020, after Big Thief’s March tour was abruptly cut short by the pandemic, Lenker claimed respite in a cabin in the mountains of western Massachusetts. Alone during a year marked by loss both global and personal, Adrienne sat with her thoughts and mourned. In the album’s sleevenotes she writes of this time as one of pain and hurting: “I had a handful of songs that I was planning on recording, but by the time Phil Weinrobe (her chief collaborator on the album) arrived I was on a whole new level of heartsick and the songs were flying through my ears. I was basically lying in the dirt half the time.” Despite this, or because of it, the time she spent in that homemade cabin studio brought forth her most beautiful solo albums to date.

songs and instrumentals” began as an attempt to capture the particular beauty of the sound of her guitar in that space. The process was arduous, involving three winks of tinkering with a mass of tape machines, a binaural head and a pile of XLR cables. Nine of the songs on the album were written freshly during the recording session. Lenker and sound engineer Phil would start and end each day with an improvised acoustic guitar instrumental which they later collaged into the pieces which make up the first side of the instrumentals album. The second half is mostly windchimes. The albums are uniquely intimate, offering a breath taking insight into Lenker’s mind and relationship with nature. The artwork was painted by Lenker’s grandmother.

Everyone in Big Thief lives all over the place. Lenker, 28, is technically homeless, though she calls herself “homeful” as she is at home as long as she is near people she cares about. She’s about to sublet a place near her family in Minnesota. Meek, 32, lives in Topanga. Krivchenia, 30, lives in Los Angeles. And Oleartchik, 32, moved back to Israel  “between the mountains in Tel Aviv,” Meek says. “It’s this new chapter of taking care of ourselves first instead of sacrificing everything for the music,” he says of the arrangement. The band has check-ins by phone every Monday, which usually include saying no to a lot of business opportunities they find distasteful.

Lenker doesn’t sound too concerned with how to keep her art from getting turned into a commodity. She has much bigger plans that would preclude such an outcome. “I don’t think we just want to be a touring band for the next 20 years and try to get as big as possible,” she says. “I think Big Thief’s going to be really creative in the future. 

Everything is democratic in our band, creatively and with business. Everything has to be agreed upon, which is so exhausting, and it takes so much more energy than just Adrianne or me being the bandleader. It was an evolution. At first, me and Adrianne built the band, so we led it together. Pretty quickly it became this unanimous democracy.”

The album covers for U.F.O.F. and Two Hands feature all four band members practically on top of each other, and that’s not a coincidence, that’s a message. “We saw the photos and we decided, ‘This is the simplest, most honest expression of who we are as a group of people,’” Meek says. “We just actually want to be that close together whenever we’re hanging out because we love each other.”  

Adrianne Lenker, Buck Meek, James Krivchenia, Max Oleartchik

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