Big Thief Interview: Home on the Road
Their second album of 2019 and perhaps their most potent statement yet, Two Hands sees New York’s Big Thief deliver an urgent global message. Gary Walker goes into the mountains to interview a band who’ve found a home on the road…
Please wake up. Cradled in the protective embrace of Sugar Loaf Mountain, Big Thief are delivering their sermon. With the Brecon Beacons sky melting slowly from deep azure to salmon pink high above the stage, the New York band take just three words of their much-anticipated set at Green Man festival to signal the urgent rallying cry at the heart of new album, Two Hands.
Following only five months after the record described by the band as its “celestial twin”, U.F.O.F., and their fourth album in as many years, Two Hands is unquestionably, overtly concerned with the shameful mess the human race has made of the planet we call home, the unabated assault man has wrought upon mother nature.
And Big Thief are here to talk about it. Marching onstage, Adrianne Lenker leading the way in black mesh top, neon wig and pencilled-on moustache, they set about their task with fervent resolve. Those first three words of opening song Shoulder introduce a heartfelt plea for humanity to emerge from the desensitised inertia which sees us sleepwalking towards oblivion as forests burn, ice caps melt and all the while big, egotistical men count their money and jostle for power.
By the time Big Thief unleash the terrifying evocations of the album’s first single, Not, Adrianne warning ominously of “fire lapping at the creek” and a “planet not spinning”, the wig has fallen off. The band locking into a telepathic groove around her, the singer forces her guitar into her vintage Magnatone amp, yielding great ungodly howls of feedback at the culmination of a searing solo.
Big Thief mean business, and they’ve been doing this night after night, spreading their message around Europe. In the last 10 days alone, they’ve played in Portugal, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Hungary, France and Belgium. Time is running out and the alt-folk quartet band are not interested in resting.
Rewind four hours and we’re ensconced in an unassuming cabin backstage with Adrianne and the band’s affable drummer James Krivchenia. They’ve just arrived on a sleeper bus from Belgium’s Pukkelpop festival and are decompressing, Adrianne with closely-cropped hair wearing her torn black T-shirt inside out and sipping from a tin mug of hot water and ginger, James relaxed in bright pink shorts and baseball cap.
Previously Adrianne, who was born in Indianapolis before moving to Brooklyn, where she met Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek and formed the band in 2005, has written about the minutiae of human relationships. The focus has been family, the home and motherhood, while probing the dark hinterlands where violence and sex meet. This time round was the intention to address global issues? Her reply is immediate, her voice faltering, yet the focus absolute. “Yeah, I want to learn how to articulate my own fear, frustration, anger, bewilderment, fascination, curiosity… anger. Just being one of the many little beings on this planet.
“I’m learning more and more, and I think there’s no way to not feel unless you’re completely desensitised, numb or cut off. We’re all part of this, all in the same boat and when any part of the earth or any human gets injured we’re just hurting ourselves.
“I want to find a way to write about it even more clearly, but from a place where there’s a meeting point, not from a place that divides a room. Bringing people together regardless of their political, religious, or whatever, views. The point of the music is not to perpetuate war and polarisation but to bring more unity and bring people into that place of deep empathy where they can feel the other as themselves. There is no other and no alien. It’s a different record in that way. We were trying to offer an embrace, and start to carve into the meat of dealing with stuff on a global level.”
Spend any time with Adrianne and you understand immediately how entwined with nature she and the band are. Ask her why they chose to release Two Hands only 161 days after U.F.O.F. and it becomes clear that for her writing is not a choice; it’s a compulsion, a necessity. Growing up in a Midwest religious cult, Adrianne was pushed by her father for a time towards becoming a child pop star. She’s been writing songs since the age of eight and has no intention of pausing to soak up the praise for the first four, critically lauded Big Thief albums. Don’t be mistaken in assuming that Two Hands is a pious, self-indulgent essay, either. It’s their best record yet and Adrianne is fast becoming one of the most evocative writers anywhere in music.
“This is just the beginnings,” she says, staring intently into her mug. “I want to grow and develop as a writer between now and whenever I die. I just want to learn as much as possible.
“We wanted the two albums to have their own space to shine and have time for people to digest them, because it’s a lot to digest. But we also wanted them to be close enough to feel related, because they are like sister records. We didn’t want to wait a full year and a full album cycle, we wanted to put them into the world close together.”
Despite those sisterly ties, the two albums were crafted in entirely different locations – U.F.O.F. in the cool cabin isolation of Washington State’s Bear Creek studios and Two Hands in the broiling desert temperatures of Sonic Ranch, among the pecan orchards that flank the Rio Grande along the Mexican border in El Paso, Texas.
“All the songs were in the womb together and then they were born and each contained the opposite,” says Adrianne. “As if they were split off as twins and came out as two beings, they are like each other’s other half. There’s the celestial, milky, ethereal U.F.O.F. and then the bones, flesh and blood of Two Hands, so they create a complete being, the infinite mixed with the finite, tangible and physical.”
The naked honesty of the message on Two Hands meant the band recorded live, eschewing overdubs and production tweaks. What you see on stage with Big Thief is what you get on record.
“With those songs, we knew beforehand that the Two Hands collection, a lot of it was stuff we’d been playing live,” says James, who mixed the record at New York’s Bunker Studios with the band’s long-time producer Andrew Sarlo. “It felt strongest not too gussied up. It felt strong when it was raw and when we were trying to be the best band we can be together, not trying to nail a perfect, huge sound. There was always an instinct that the record was going to be what we really sound like when we play together, even if we want to sound better than that, or bigger, or more complex or more complicated, that’s us to the best of our abilities at that time.”
That’s nowhere more evident than on the outstanding, seething Not. Two Hands’ lead single has existed in Big Thief’s live set for some time, yet has never felt right for any of their albums. It nearly didn’t make the cut again. The initial Sonic Ranch version was abandoned, the band finally capturing it in a single take at Sound City in LA.
Adrianne takes up the tale: “It was one take. We really got lost in the song. We recorded it in El Paso, but something just wasn’t sitting right. It was fine, but it didn’t feel like the most accurate recording of that song.”
“It was the one song we redid afterwards,” says James. “We were having a lot of trouble sequencing the record. I was of the mind that we couldn’t sequence it because Not wasn’t as strong as it could be. It came and it wasn’t, ‘Fuck yeah!’. We’ve played that song live a lot, so we know the ‘Fuck yeah’ feeling when it happens, and we had to go back in and get that.”
Adrianne interjects, the pair lighting up at the memory. “It was the key, the missing link to being able to sequence the whole record. We played like we were playing to a room of 2,000 people. We were just, ‘raarrgh’! I remember turning up the amp to 10 for the solo and getting hurt on the strings, and just trying to mess up the sound. It’s not even the most amazing guitar solo, but it’s just like, ‘that’s it, to the best of our ability’.”
The band also had vinyl on their minds as they finalised the tracklisting, the promo copies labelled simply as ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B’.
“We worked on sequencing it so much, we turned it inside out,” says Adrianne. “We always think about vinyl when we sequence, because I feel like that’s the starting point and anything from there is cool. Wanting it to sit well as a record and be something that feels cohesive throughout, tells a story and has a natural break in the middle when you flip the record… I can’t imagine us being like, ‘Oh it’s all just on Spotify and people only listen to single tracks anyway’. It’s so much more fun to think about records.”
With albums pouring out of the band so prolifically, have they had chance to reflect on a journey that’s taken them from sleeping in a warehouse and living out of a van to signing to 4AD and becoming one of the most talked-about indie bands on the planet. How much have they changed?
“A lot,” answers James emphatically and they both burst into laughter. “I listened to a few songs from Masterpiece a couple of weeks ago and it was really trippy. Everyone sounds different. We’ve all grown and changed so much and everyone has stepped into a much deeper confidence because of how comfortable and supportive we are with each other. It feels like we’ve changed a lot and come to this place where everyone’s trying to fire on all cylinders into the music.”
“Gosh, when we started, when I was 24… so much has changed,” recalls Adrianne. “We’ve gotten closer, to each other, to ourselves, to the music and I feel like my writing has changed a lot. It has the same core, but I feel like I’m getting closer to something. I like the songs more, I like what we’re doing more.”
Indeed, she’s already described Two Hands as the album she’s most proud of. On lo-fi anthem Forgotten Eyes Adrianne speaks of the “tear on the common cheek with which we smile” and on Toy, Earth is a “Charcoal womb”, where “Jet planes purr/ Children burn, faceless vapour”. Why do these songs resonate most powerfully with her?
“Well just listen to ’em,” she jokes. “They just make me feel a lot and it’s a lasting feeling.” She pauses pregnantly. “I just feel like there’s less and less thought in my writing and more… guts… It feels closer to me somehow, more time-proof, age-proof. I don’t feel like, ‘this was when I was 21 and feeling all this stuff’. I can imagine singing these songs when I’m 70.”
A Bigger Voice
Of course, better songs and bigger shows mean bigger crowds. Do the band feel an increased pressure and responsibility? “I don’t experience it as pressure,” Adrianne answers, “but we do have a responsibility, not just as artists but as people. We can either be caretakers of ourselves, each other and this planet or we can just obliterate it and ourselves. I think the bigger our voice is, that’s a privilege and it’s powerful to know you have a voice and influence. I want to use that.”
“I’ve always felt that no matter how small or how big the show, there is a responsibility,” agrees James. “If you’re the one onstage leading a gathering of people, there’s the responsibility of at least doing something the best you can. If you’re going to be on stage, you should try. Why are you there? If you don’t want to be there, you shouldn’t be there.”
Our mind wanders back to the band’s End Of The Road show in 2018 when Adrianne was visibly affected and appeared to be struggling with the occasion. She takes over: “It doesn’t mean that you always want to be there, because sometimes you don’t want to be on stage. It might even just be as simple as finishing the show, despite feeling like you just want to get off the stage, or making a bunch of mistakes and feeling like it’s sloppy, but persevering and loving yourself through it. That can be inspiring and often that is what’s inspiring about our shows.”
James cannot contain his laughter at this stage, tickled by the image of the band’s imperfect live performances.
“They can be all over the place,” Adrianne presses on. “Stopping songs, because we’re not just about performing and presenting some polished thing where we all really know our parts and it’s really put together. No, not at all, we’re just trying to give a clear representation of where we’re at with the music and with ourselves and that’s really vulnerable. Then exposing that vulnerability and imperfection and carrying yourself through it in a way that’s loving and playful and invites other people to then say, ‘Jeez, I have this and this that I don’t like about myself, but I could maybe hold and carry myself through this experience’.
“Contributing to the world doesn’t mean you make this grand statement that you know the truth and you’re preaching it to people, it can just be this very small thing where you’re learning how to tend to the garden just in your immediate vicinity. I want the music to feel like that. I don’t want it to be, ‘Here’s some truth I’m going to spit at you right now’.”
A knock on the door from the band’s manager announces our time with Big Thief is running out. Adrianne will put on her backpack and head out into the festival, alone and unguarded. James plans to go for a run around Glanusk Park before showtime. After that, it’s back on the bus to an intimate gig at London’s Bush Hall, and beyond lies a US and Canadian tour that stretches through the autumn before Big Thief return to Europe early in the new year. Work has already started on the next batch of songs. Adrianne admits that “home is kind of the road” now, but that’s essential because Big Thief are a family with a message to spread, and they know that, just like the mountain watching over us, the icy babbling Usk and this whole Earth we inhabit, a band is a fragile, impermanent thing.
“I don’t think it would be good for anyone to expect anything,” says Adrianne. “There’s no way of knowing. I will say that we’re constantly working on stuff and writing. There are already lots of new songs since doing Two Hands and U.F.O.F. and we’re really excited about music, so if I had my best guess, I’d say there will be another album, but also we don’t know whether this will all exist tomorrow…”