Thursday, July 28, 2011

Interview, Part One: Richard Buckner On His Musical Philosophy & Early Albums

I discovered Richard Buckner back in 1998 with the release of his third album, Since. At the time, I was listening to a lot of records from the Thrill Jockey label, which at the time, was the home of such fiercely independent bands such as Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, and Trans Am, among many others. I was also getting more and more into alt-country acts like Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, and Whiskeytown, but had little to go on and was hungry for something else. I was seeking some kind of intersecting place between my love for indie-rock, my insatiable draw to the world of alt-country and No Depression, and my growing appreciation for unique acoustic songwriting.

Well, after reading a review of the latest record by Richard Buckner called Since, and learning that it featured John McEntire (drummer for Tortoise and The Sea And Cake), the pedal steel guitarist Eric Heywood (Son Volt), Dave Schramm, and David Grubbs (Palace Brothers), I immediately ran out and picked up a copy, completely unheard. 

Since was a revelation that not only opened me up to Buckner's discography, but provided me with the first steps to dig into genres that as a youthful listener of such acts as Fugazi, Pavement, Sebadoh, and Tortoise, I never thought to explore before. Since provided me with a roadmap back through Buckner's previous efforts, Devotion & Doubt and Bloomed. These three records opened up my ears and got me excited. I mean, really excited. I can trace my discovery of such songwriters as Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and Gillian Welch back to the day I picked up Since. It's hilarious to me now to think that the inclusion of (drummer-hero of mine) John McEntire on an album by an artist that I never even heard of before would change how I listed to music forever.

So when I heard that Richard Buckner's new album, Our Blood, was going to be coming out on August 2nd, I quickly sent out emails and managed to line up a phone interview with the man himself. What started out as an interview to cover his new album, quickly turned into an hour and a half conversation that began with the Since record, retraced his experiences back to his Bloomed debut, and then dug into his latest experiences leading up to, as well as crafting his new record.

I decided to break this up into a two-part interview feature. Part One covers Buckner's songwriting, recording processes, and musical philosophies that has produced four stellar releases: Bloomed, Devotion & Doubt, Since, and The Hill. Part Two will dig into Buckner's new album, Our Blood.

Here's Part One: 

Your third album, Since, was the first record of yours that I picked up. One of the things that roped me into picking up that album was that John McEntire (of Tortoise, Sea and Cake) played on it along with a lot of other guests, including pedal steel guitarist Eric Heywood and multi-instrumentalist Dave Grubbs. It's a standout album in your catalog for me personally, and I would love to hear about your experiences making it.

Richard Buckner: My basic premise for the Since record was I really wanted the whole thing to start off with John McEntire and me live. I had these songs I had written and since I have a certain way of playing, I wanted to be taken out of that world as much as I could. McEntire was the man for that for sure. So I wanted to start by setting up the basic arrangements with just me and him, so that when the other players came in and put their parts down, it would be layered it in a way I couldn't have imagined. It was really important to set the songs free from me. 

So did you record it all with John McEntire and then hand it over to the other players?

RB: Basically, I tracked live with McEntire and then after those parts were done we had the other people come in and layer the parts down based on my ideas. But I knew that to give them my ideas was one thing, but having them "trail my ideas" based on McEntire's work would also transform their parts in a way that would take the songs out of my world. I really wanted things to take shape without my control because I really like when things happen outside the way I am thinking. That's the whole point of making a record to me. It's a way to take the record out of my hands because I want each of my records to be a different experience each time.

Can you give an example of how the unexpectedness of the process dictated your direction on the album?

There is a song on Since called "Hand to the Hem". I wrote the song, I mean, I KNEW the song. And I remember sitting there in my booth while John was just outside. As he was playing the drums and there were points where I just didn't know where I was. It was like hanging onto a wild horse as it's dragging you into the woods. And I was like "I know this song, I know how to play it, and I know I am playing it in the right order, but where am I?". And then the song ended.

When I write songs, each song has sections, not a verse-chorus kind of thing. There are sections that appear, or ones that I want to appear for various dynamic reasons. And I didn't even understand those sections again until a week or two later when I had 2 or 3 more parts on there which defined the song more. It was only at that point that it all made sense to me.

McEntire is such an amazing thinker, and watching him play is an amazing experience. But also hearing how he heard the sections of the songs was really a great experience because he took them completely out of my world. So when the other musicians layered their parts on, it was in ways that I wouldn't have ever imagined.

The premise of Since was really based on working with McEntire first, but then I wanted David Grubbs too. He's such a great guitar player, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. He played these great piano parts on a Palace Brothers record that I thought were really great chord variations. I'm not even exactly sure what he was doing, but they were chords I appreciated that anchored the parts in a way that I really loved.

I was picking people to work with for very specific things about them that would translate the songs differently. I like doing that when making records. I like matching up people that would not normally play together and just let things happen. The players can't control as much and I can't control as much either. And then you get this outcome that no one could have imagined. It is so much more satisfying in the end. I really want to get away from autopilot as much as I can when I'm working. And that's one way to do it.

Let's back up even further to your first record Bloomed.

Well for Bloomed, I flew down to Lubbock Texas for four days and did the whole thing. It was a very casual and loose session. I mean Lubbock has a really small town feel to it. I got down there and it was the first time I ever did a whole record in a recording studio and I didn't know how things worked.

So I got there and did my live tracks and then my producer, Lloyd Maines, suggested that we just start trying all different kinds of things. He'd say "Well, let's try this 3-string banjo with a string broken off". And then he was like "Well, we got to get some mandolin in here or accordion". And then he'd be like "OK, let me just see who's around" and he'd start making some calls to his friends. It wasn't like it was planned out or scheduled. It was more like he would just call someone he knew and ask them if they would like to come down and try to put something down with us. It was just so nice and casual and it worked out well. I just put myself in his hands and he did such a good job.

And then came your second album,  Devotion & Doubt.  For that one you worked with Joey Burns and Johnny Convertino of Calexico. Can you talk about your experiences working with them and how that influenced the record?

RB: For Devotion & Doubt I had specific ideas that were more about texture. I loved this Giant Sand album called Glum. And I knew that the rhythm section of that band, Joey Burns and Johnny Convertino (now in Calexico) would have a very organic approach to my songs. I knew it wouldn't sound like all drums and bass, but more like a breeze in a room that comes and goes. Their vibe is so much of a "momentary" kind of thing.

We worked in a studio in Tucson, Arizona, which was a very relaxed kind of situation. Joey and Johnny are musicians who are not there for the money, like so many musicians who are just there for a certain amount of hours to record their parts and then leave. Joey and Johnny are there to hang out and listen to stuff, and to try things out and screw around. We would just try stuff out for fun when we were down there. For example: we would wrap something up and it would be like "Ok guys, we're all set, why don't you go grab some dinner and we'll see you tomorrow" and they would go "Yeah, yeah...", and they would just stick around, or go walk back in and start playing again.

That's so funny. It sounds like you couldn't even keep them out of the room.

RB: It was like an adult-musician playground! To them, there was no reason to leave because they liked hanging out there and there was no reason for them to go home.

That's so cool to hear about their working dynamic and to think about not just their own Calexico records in that way, but also their contributions to your record, as well as all of the other projects and collaborations that they have worked on over the years. It just makes me respect those guys so much more.

Yeah, they're not thinking about the paycheck or the time or anything like that. They are just thinking about hanging out, working together, and being in a cool environment. It's like "Why go home?" There's a track on Devotion & Doubt called "On Travelling". The day we recorded it, I found a cheap chord organ at a store. I told Joey and Johnny "You can go" and they were just like "Yeah, whatever". So I just went out into the main studio and started playing the chord organ, and then we all began screwing around and playing.

While this was happening, my producer just started setting up mics and began recording. As we were playing, we didn't even know we were recording that song, and then it was done. I just thought "That is exactly why I am here". The outcome is so much how I could have never imagined. These guys did it and it was one of the easiest things we ever did together. It was just one of those accidental moments. And I love that it happened.

Another example was something I called the "Pizza Grease Incident". We recorded a good version of a track, I can't remember which song it was, but there was this weird thing that happened. When we played the song back after recording, there was this weird sound on part of it. It sounded like some sort of weird slowing-down, and we all didn't know what it was. It's funny because we just ate some pizza, so the joke was like "Who got pizza grease on the tape" (which didn't really happen).

I had no idea that your recording process was so spontaneous. What was one of the most surprising elements captured during the recording of the record?

RB: I remember times when John Convertino would say " Oh, let's try this out today". There was a time when Joey Burns took his double bass bow out and started bowing the vibes. It ended up being a really cool sound. These things didn't come out of desperation in the studio, it was always about exploring sound to see how we could make a good mistake. I mean I would have never said "I'm going to record in Tucson and have someone play vibes with a double bass bow". We were just hanging out and it just happened. And it created this really cool outcome that we were really happy with.

I chose those guys because I wanted a real organic approach to the room session. At that point, I wasn't looking for any kind of structure to be set up, I just wanted to let things happen. But after Devotion & Doubt, I wanted to change the sound and try something else. That's why I brought in John McEntire. I really wanted the process to have a more strict set up, but one that would allow other things to happen.

So, since we actually began with your third record, "Since", let's move onto it's follow-up, "The Hill".  I remember picking up that record right when it came out, and not having read any press about it. It was a quite a surprise from what I was expecting. The record was based on the Edgar Lee Master's "Spoon River Anthology". Can you describe how that album came together?

RB: After Since, I was off a major label and was wondering what to do next. I went to Portland, Oregon to make a new record, but I wasn't happy with the performances or the songs. I just wasn't happy with what was happening. So I left that session and went home, and I kind of got writer's block. I just didn't know what to do for the next record. At the time, I was living in Alberta, Canada and what I did was I bought a little home recorder and got a little space in an artists studio.

I started to screw around with these Spooner Anthology poems and some instrumental music I was working on. I didn't move there to make a new record, I was just trying to give myself a creative distraction so I could get back on track and break through my writer's block.  So The Hill actually wasn't meant to be a record, but by the time I got finished doing the demos, I thought that "This was a weird thing". Since I wasn't on a label, I knew no one would be freaked out by it or anything, so I thought I would put it out as a song cycle based on these poems. I just thought "Why not?". I mean, it was an interesting thing for me to do and the outcome was something that, again, I could not control.  

What was your recording process for The Hill?

RB: So, I took my demos and headed down to Tuscon, and worked with Joey and Johnny again, to re-record a few of the tracks I had. I went down there and said "I love you guys, but here are the rules: no drum kits and no bass. Now, what are you going to do?".

We had a big open room and we put out the percussion stuff. We spread it out all around the room with a bunch of room mics. Then I told John to walk around the room and to do what he wanted to do, but I said "Don't put together a drum kit". It was funny- he tried a couple of times, I mean there were a couple of times when he said "Well, I'll just bring these over here and put this right here", and I had to stop him and say "John! You can't do that. Take them back apart and put them back where you got them". So then he would walk around and do different things.

Along those same lines, I told Joey that he couldn't play bass, he could only play cello to replicate the parts I had. There were lots of aspects of that experience that were surprising. It was just another way of making sure I wasn't getting on autopilot and that I was getting an outcome that I couldn't ever imagine.

So that's how I go back and forth with people and use them for what they are worth, but also manipulate the process itself to get what they are good at. I think it gives them an experience where they are working in new ways, and I think that is important. I try to do that in every record I work on: to create situations where things are going to happen that no one could have imagined- and that's a good thing.

Part 2 of this interview will be posted next week to coincide with the release of Richard Buckner's new album, Our Blood. We'll discuss his experiences making his new record-  including the events leading up to it, his writing of the new material, as well as his recording process for the album. Our Blood will be released via Merge Records on August 2nd.

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