Big Thief has always been a unique live band, but with a performance with Stephen Colbert in October 2019, the foursome proved once again how magical the sum of its parts is. Each band member draws the eye in their own way, seemingly living entirely in their own dream world and yet the interplay is unimaginably intimate. After solo albums by Adrianne Lenker and James Krivchenia last year, it is now guitarist Buck Meek's turn to show how his dream world sounds outside the context of Big Thief. The result is Two Saviors, a country record that is overwhelming in all its peace.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
Illustration: Wolter Dreissen
Halfway through the conversation, as Buck Meek pauses once more, the faint ringing of a wind organ can be heard in the distance. As I wait for Meek to calmly formulate an answer to the question in his mind, I get a mental glimpse of the ‘front yard’ from which he's calling. Since a year or two, Meek's home has been a cabin on a mountaintop in California's Topanga State Park, five minutes from the Pacific Ocean and half an hour from downtown LA. Topanga is the "largest wilderness area within the city limits of any city in the world,” Meek tells me. He describes his habitat lovingly: “It is wonderful to be able to sleep here under the stars, to be awakened by wind organs and fresh air, to be able to spend so much time in the ocean and then be in the city in no time at all, being able to attend shows and maintain a close-knit musical community.”
"If you let yourself get too carried away with the self-reflection that goes with such a recording process, you risk losing perspective completely in that mirror."
Meek talks about the “wild herbs, the rattlesnakes, the bobcats and the hawks” around him – or that time when the algae in the ocean suddenly lit up. “The waves were lit up with a kind of neon blue thanks to certain algae. I spent almost every night there that week, surfing under the full moon. I saw the fins of dolphins whose silhouettes underwater were colored neon blue. It was amazing.”
Before his move, Meek lived in the middle of New York City for more than eight years. The other extreme. “New York is an environment of reactions; there is simply so much to react to, so many stimuli, human stimuli. So many colours, so much culture constantly moving through you. So much movement, so much noise. While a place like this is much more of a clear reflection of who you are. And the stimuli are of a natural origin. That has been very important to me.”
A “paradigm shift”, as he calls it, drove Meek out – literally. “I have gone through a development in my life and so I wanted to place myself in a whole new context.” In that context, Two Saviors, Meek's second solo album, slowly came into existence in the autumn of 2018. He had just recorded two albums with Big Thief in a short time – U.F.O.F. en Two Hands – toured extensively across Europe and the US, and finally had time alone. That first period in Topanga turns out to be a “vulnerable but important” period, one of isolation and self-reflection; a rough contrast to the hectic tour life that Meek had been living for years. He seized his moment. “I can be a very slow writer and – as you can hear – it's quite cryptic at times. It was a kind of puzzle that I was solving myself while writing.”
With whom Meek would make the album, once the songs had been written, was soon decided. Andrew Sarlo has every Big Thief album to date, as well as Meek's previous solo record, Buck Meek (2018) en , and the EPs he recorded with Adrianne Lenker before Big Thief; none better suited to balancing Meek's complex, personal puzzles. “It was his idea to record the songs as quickly and as instinctively as possible, with as little distraction as possible. Just build it up in a house in New Orleans—a place where it's really hot, which would simply melt our self-consciousness.”
After four Big Thief records, the recording process appeared to be a logical next step in the collaboration. “With Sarlo we have gradually come to a more lively, vulnerable and dangerous recording process. With Masterpiece (2016, ed.) we started in a much more controlled environment. We were all much younger and still figuring everything out. It was a much more traditional approach with all the overdubs. With Capacity (2017, ed.) we have come a little closer to a live base, but with U.F.O.F. andTwo Hands (both 2019, ed.), it really became our credo to record as much live as we could. We discovered how powerful it is to record making music together in one space – a process that lives and breathes – with flaws and vulnerabilities and all. There have been records where we spent all day trying to perfect one song, sometimes twenty up to thirty versions, only to eventually come back to that first or second take and realize that there was something magical about it that was almost immediately lost as soon as we started repeating it. With that realization, Sarlo and I structured these sessions – to an extreme degree – to really capture the energy of a first take.”
For seven days Sarlo, Meek and his band camped in the July heat in a villa a stone's throw from the Mississippi. In the morning, before everyone was well and truly awake, the record was played in its entirety; In the evening, after a long siesta, stroll through the French Quarter or along the river, they’d play it again. Until the end of the week, fourteen sets had been played, each slightly different. “We played in different rooms, changed instruments, always changed the setup to throw ourselves a curveball. We all ended up in the bedroom eventually , but we even tried to each play in a different room – with the microphones in the hallway in the middle of the house.”
After recording with Big Thief in forested mountain environments and desolate desert areas, the urban environment of New Orleans proved surprisingly suitable for Meek to stay focused. “Such a lively place immediately takes you out of your own little bubble, from your own songs, to immerse yourself in the brass bands on the street, et cetera. That distraction was a way to maintain focus while we were recording. It helped us distance ourselves from the process. That's where the danger lies for me: if you let yourself get too carried away with the self-reflection that goes with such a recording process, you risk losing perspective completely in that mirror."
Meek especially cherished the mornings. “Those were the most honest in a way, because we really had just rolled out of bed. We had just had our first cup of coffee, were mostly still in our pajamas. A certain subconscious came up; it was pure. A little messier perhaps, but pure. By nightfall we would have walked all day, we were warm, perhaps a little tired, but more or less clear and focused – with a little more self-awareness.” The two different versions of the same song, "Two Moons" and "Two Moons (morning)", speak volumes. Both sound very relaxed, like almost every moment on Two Saviors, but frivolity dominates on the morning version – à la Townes Van Zandt in his happiest moments. As if the band had completely forgotten that they were working on a record. That turns out to be partly true. “We were just playing around, warming up. I don't even think we realized Sarlo was recording it."
The bridge between Meek's solo work and Big Thief's music was already built on 'Replaced', in the quiet closing phase of Two Hands. More than six months after the lion's share of that record was recorded, Adrianne Lenker visits Meek, who has just been living in Topanga. A song is created that feels like a duet, an interplay between Meek and Lenker, who were married until a year earlier, more than any Big Thief song up to that point. The overwhelming weightlessness, the tranquility, the way Lenker audibly informs Meek that it is time for his guitar solo (“Go now,” she whispers); it's completely new to Big Thief, but turns out to be exactly where Meek excels.
Two Saviors is guided by that same tranquility and weightlessness. The contrast with the usually intense recording process behind every Big Thief record could hardly have been greater. “This was easier, I think. Big Thief is hugely democratic. Of course Adrianne writes the songs, but the composition, the studio process, the mixing process and everything else that comes with it is super democratic. With this record I just decided to hand over most of the leadership to Sarlo. To keep things moving, I almost considered myself one of the band members. I wanted to take that weight off my own shoulders and see what dynamics it would create. So he was sort of directing us – which usually amounted to stepping aside and just letting us improvise. It was the easiest thing I've ever done in the studio. At the end of the sessions I felt lighter than when we started.”
“I was also surprised by how light the songs had become,” Meek added, after another long pause. “I never dreamed that they would sound so honest, that we would come so close to the essence of the songs.”
Elements that took shape on Two Saviors have only been magnified since then. Something that Meek largely owes to the pandemic. He even calls it “a blessing”, for him personally. When all hell broke loose in Western Europe in the spring of 2020, Big Thief was right in the middle of it. After several shows in Italy had already been cancelled, the virus continued to chase them until, less than a week after their performance in Paradiso, the tour had to officially end. Each band member went their own way. Meek spent some time with his Dutch girlfriend – until the American government finally ordered him back to Topanga with an upcoming travel ban. “It was quite a struggle to let go of that identity that you have on the road. I was in the middle of so many different tours and when you're constantly on the go, your whole personality is related to that exchange with an audience, to playing shows. It was really a shock to suddenly be alone and not have that outlet anymore. But at the same time it was also a relief. It took me a few months to land, but then I managed, for the first time in eight years, to develop certain rituals for myself; rituals of self care. I practiced the guitar every day, for the first time in ten years. Real practice, not just playing with bands or writing arrangements, but actually trying new things.”
"It was really a shock to suddenly be alone and not have that outlet anymore. But at the same time it was also a relief."
“It was quite a struggle to let go of that identity that you have on the road. I was in the middle of so many different tours and when you're constantly on the go, your whole personality is related to that exchange with an audience, to playing shows. It was really a shock to suddenly be alone and not have that outlet anymore. But at the same time it was also a relief. It took me a few months to land, but then I managed, for the first time in eight years, to develop certain rituals for myself; rituals of self care. I practiced the guitar every day, for the first time in ten years. Real practice, not just playing with bands or writing arrangements, but actually trying new things.”
Once rooted, Meek writes a whole new solo record in no time. In the meantime, he mainly listens to ambient music himself: “Grouper, Julianna Barwick, William Basinski, Kara-Lis Coverdale, those kinds of artists. It is music that can exist in a space without immediately giving it a narrative. It gives me the space to think, to write, to dream away without anything being given from the outside. It also wakes me up every day, which gives a very smooth transition from the dream world to the awakening.”
“I try to live in the moment as much as I can, to slow myself down. I tend to do everything as quickly as possible, overwork myself or frantically try to make the most of a day. It is very valuable to me that I now have the space to try to do everything slowly, to wake up slowly, to make a cup of coffee slowly and to do everything as consciously as possible. To read a chapter or two in the morning, move slowly around the house and then, when I grab my guitar, shut down my phone and laptop. To really immerse myself in whatever I decide to fill the space I have with. It has been a very important time for me.”
The word 'space' often comes up in the conversation, whether it is about the expansive environment of Topanga State Park, the music of Kara-Lis Coverdale or the instrumental openness that characterizes Two Saviors. The development compared to Meek's much more compact debut is evident – and will undoubtedly continue. “I think I learned a lot about how space can enhance a story. Space can speak volumes, whether it's empty space or the unexplained meaning of a song's lyrics. By allowing a certain ambiguity between two ideas that may seem distant from each other, you can create something entirely new. In a way, that's how our brain works; we ourselves fill those meaningless voids between two stimuli or two experiences.”
“And when it comes to musical space, I've developed such a deep, deep trusting relationship with my band. These are the same musicians you hear on my debut album; we have toured so much in the last few years, played so much together and, more importantly, lived together. We've been through so many chapters where we've overcome our differences, come to understand each other, learn to compromise and love each other, trust each other. I can hear that a lot in these recordings. We learned with this record to give each other that space, to hold each other up, while everyone put themselves very much in the foreground on the first record and filled in all the voids.”
The peace, the space, the rituals. Meek hopes to be able to hold on to them, "keep the balance", when the next chapter begins for him. That chapter kicked off this fall when Big Thief gathered for the first time since the start of the pandemic and, as befits Big Thief, delved deep into nature for new album recordings—at 3,000 feet in the Rockies. Meek has not yet been able to put into words the influence of the altitude, the isolation and the icy cold on the music. But: “the impact is even greater than we could ever have imagined.”
When I speak to Meek, he has been back in Topanga for a while, where he still feels at home for the time being. Especially now that his girlfriend from the Netherlands has been visiting for a few months. How do they pass the time? “We spend a lot of time in nature,” he sighs, dreamily as he sounds throughout the conversation. In the distance a wind organ chimes again.
Two Saviors has appeared on Keeled Scales and can be bought here
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.