After each having had time to reflect and branch off on solo endeavours, the force of nature that is Big Thief reconvened in the summer of 2020 for a months-long series of sprawling recording sessions, fielding a total of 45 finished tracks – 20 of which now appear on Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You. Having spoken to guitarist Buck Meek, Ruben van Dijk writes about a band that exists on a very different earth.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
The last time I spoke to Buck Meek, about his second solo LP Two Saviors, he told me how he had recently moved to a cabin in Topanga Canyon, a stone’s throw from the Pacific, and how, one recent evening, he’d been out surfing when a bioluminescent tide appeared, followed by a pod of dolphins frolicking by his side, all of them bathed in waves of neon blue. He chuckles quietly as I remind him of the story. “That was a good time.”
That was January 2021. Now, exactly a year later, Meek is busy promoting Big Thief’s fifth album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, but not before he’s told me about his latest coastal adventure. “I surfed a tsunami,” he tells me, still gleaming, “There was a tsunami created by the underwater volcano in Tonga, so I went out and surfed the tsunami tide. It was scary, but the waves were really good. I had to do it.”
It's impossible to discuss Dragon New Warm Mountain without talking about the effect of the ‘more-than-human’, to use the term coined by American ecologist David Abram, on its creation; the earthly nature that served as an inspiration to U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, but with which Big Thief has fully merged itself on this album. Because “we are only human in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human,” writes Abram, and as such Big Thief has now placed itself not close to what we call nature, but with it, on equal footing.
Like the leaves, like a butterfly
It starts with ‘Change’, literally. Having left their fourth recording session in just as many months, Big Thief had forty-five songs mixed and mastered and, to cut it down to a manageable twenty, asked their grandmothers to make a selection and suggest a tracklist. All of them suggested ‘Change’ as the opening track, and so it would be.
Immediately, Big Thief strikes to the core of what their wide-ranging new double album is about. ‘Would you live forever, never die, while everything around passes?’ A break-up song becomes a song about death. Death not in any grim way, not as something to forever mourn, but as an inevitability. We change like the wind and the leaves, and die like them too.
From the soft-spoken ‘ok’ that preludes the song, the honesty that characterizes much of Dragon New Warm Mountain is immediately apparent on ‘Change’. It’s perhaps Meek’s favourite song on the album: “It feels like one of the most direct moments in Adrianne’s songwriting I’ve ever heard. That song was written just a few minutes before it was recorded. There was a tower at the studio in Colorado and we could all hear her in the tower, echoing through the house. Then she came down in tears and sat down to show us the song, and our engineer quickly got up and put a microphone in front of her, before she even had a chance to start, and hit record on the tape machine. And that’s the version on the album.”
‘Change’ is followed by ‘Time Escaping’ is followed by ‘Spud Infinity’, all immediately showing the range of sounds Big Thief is going for on this album, all touching upon themes that recur throughout the full eighty minute runtime. The former has the listener clapping along to jubilant doom, to everything eventually ‘falling through’, turning to ‘dust and petal, molten rock and meadow’. The latter, too, celebrates our own insignificance with yodel and fiddle. We are small, whichever way you look. We like to distinguish our species from all others, just as we like to distinguish the now from all that came before. But however exceptional and superior we feel, Adrianne Lenker notes, ‘the past was not a history book, that was just some linear perception.’ We’re just a dime a dozen.
"I think any reminder of our mortality is healthy in the creative process.”Buck Meek
But it's nothing to fret about. If anything, Lenker is describing a world in which love is one of the few things that’s not a scarcity, and in which, precisely because of the inevitable decline of it all, there’s so much to love beyond what’s human. There’s so much to share, she echoes on ‘The Only Place’. 'So what if we ‘intertwine the human race with other kinds’?
I love you is a river so high
Like with U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, Big Thief sought out studios in more or less remote, disparate locations: the Appalachian woods of upstate New York; Topanga Canyon near the Californian coast; “hot-as-hell” Tucson, Arizona; and a studio at 13,000 feet in Telluride, Colorado. All of those locales seep through on Dragon New Warm Mountain. Drummer and producer James Krivchenia recorded himself playing a forest creek like a drum and icicles like drumsticks. Tucson freight trains can be heard. Takes were recorded by the band in soaking wet swimsuits, having dipped in and out of an ice cold lake in between. Moments of frailty in the face of the elements turned out to be especially reinvigorating.
Meek: “I think at least twice there was a power outage. At Sam Owens’ studio in upstate New York, there was a big storm that shut down all the power for three days. Adrianne and I ended up writing the song ‘Certainty’ on the porch, in the rain. James and Sam set up this tape machine in the kitchen, pulling power from the cigarette lighter in the truck.”
“Then the next month, in Topanga, we had spent three days setting up the whole session, we were ready to record, and then as soon as we were ready, the power shut down. It ended up being really sweet, because we hadn’t heard most of the songs yet, so instead of recording, we just sat and Adrianne played us the songs on acoustic guitar in the dark control room. There was this sensory deprivation where we were just able to listen with no distractions.”
“I think distraction is the worst enemy of the creative process. It’s so easy to get distracted, these days especially. In both power outages we were in areas that didn’t have cell phone coverage, so suddenly we were without the internet, without our phones, without light. And so all we had was candles and our guitars. It brought us back to this primordial place, which was empowering. I think any reminder of our mortality is healthy in the creative process.”
As with the tsunami tale, Meeks talks with strange veneration about the time they almost lost bass player Max Oleartchik and Lenker’s younger brother Noah in the Rocky Mountains. “They had gone on a long hike and didn’t come back by sunset. And it was a snowy mountain wilderness. Gigantic canyons, mountain lions; serious wilderness, deadly wilderness. Hours passed and so we had this full on search party. For three hours we all went out with flashlights, yelling into the canyons. And then we found them at the bottom of the valley: they had made a bonfire and had just completely forgotten about our plans to record that evening. They were having the time of their lives. It scared us so much, but it also seemed to vitalize our friendship and put us back in touch with what’s most important. It got our blood flowing, I think.”
Free the celestial body
It’s remarkable sometimes, the sincerity and admiration with which Lenker professes her love for the more-than-human – and how she manages to get away with it. On ‘Promise is a Pendulum’, in particular, she writes about moss, foxes and snails as if they’re old acquaintances, like a Snow White communing with not just the quails, squirrels and deer, but the entire forest. ‘Been listening to the white birch and the paper she dries. I’ve been listening to the frogs joke, listening to the fire smoke.’
Perhaps part of the reason Big Thief is so successful in its schmaltzy animism lies in the fact that Big Thief appears to be an ecosystem in itself: four organisms in constant interaction with each other, its physical environment, and any other organism passing through. The interaction is entirely primal most of the time, relying on tight, intangible connections that have been expanded upon all throughout the last seven years – ten in the case of Meek and Lenker. Big Thief functions self-evidently, its intricacies exposed only when outsiders join, such as when musician Mat Davidson (Twain) was brought in as a fifth member for the Tucson sessions.
Davidson, who brought along his fiddle and ended up being imperative in the recording of ‘Spud Infinity’ and ‘Red Moon’, had been acquainted with all members of Big Thief since the beginning and currently plays pedal steel in Meek’s touring band. “On one level it felt very natural,” Meek says, “He’s one of our closest brothers, musically and as a friend. But I think what felt new about it, was that for the first time we had a witness. Between the four band members we’re so close that we feel comfortable just being ourselves, breaking down. Nothing is held back. And then when you bring a witness, there is this natural sense of self-awareness. It was healthy to filter into the process, for sure. It kept us all on good behaviour.”
After two albums on which the band acknowledged the magic of a first or second take, Dragon New Warm Mountain shows a band confident enough to properly invite their audiences as witnesses, too. It almost feels like intrusion at times, picking up snippets of studio dialogue, entering the delicate space inhabited by these songs, being privy to jams that would never have made it onto a Big Thief record before.
It had been Krivchenia’s proposition, Meek tells me, “to capture as many of the facets of our band as we could, trying to include all the loose ends, the wild ideas, the jokes, the dream sequences. Just trying to collect it all and to let people into our home, to let people into our space and give them at least some peripheral understanding of who we are as a band.” Dragon New Warm Mountain finally shows the love of country music that had always been part of Big Thief’s DNA in all its glory, while also leaning even further into their sonically experimental tendencies and enthralling intimacy.
“This album has given us courage to push further into our nature, the extremes of our nature. We’re still just scratching the surface. It showed us there’s so much further to go, which feels very encouraging. It feels hopeful. I think after making this record, we want to make a death metal record, we want to make a purely ambient record…”
Live forever ‘til I die
Big Thief is a band liberated, a band without pretension but with bountiful inspiration (having passed the five-albums test in just seven years). With the 25 tracks leftover from the Dragon New Warm Mountain sessions, they might just put out another double album this year, if they feel like it.
Because Big Thief, or at least Big Thief as it now exists, has never struck me as a band that’s productive for the sake of consequence, productive because the industry wills it so. Instead, Dragon New Warm Mountain places the band on a wholly different plane of existence. This is a band that, in both their lyrics and sonic approach, defies the way we have taxonomized the world around us. Here is a band that is nature, a band that seems to exist both in the now and in eternity. The past was just some linear perception.
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is out now on 4AD and can be bought and listened to here.