Monday, August 1, 2011

Interview, Part Two: Richard Buckner Tells The Arduous Journey To Deliver "Our Blood"

In Part One of my interview with Richard Buckner, we discussed the writing and recording processes of his early albums: Bloomed, Devotion & Doubt, Since, and The Hill.

In Part Two of this interview, Richard and I picked up with a film score project he began shortly after touring for 2006's Meadow, and then go explore his long and artistically-challenging journey to finish what would become his new studio album, Our Blood.

Let's begin with discussing the film score you were working on after wrapping up your tour for the Meadow record.

RB: Sure. This was right around 2006. Usually I can't go right back into the studio. I always need some time to collect ideas before starting another record. But since the film score was such a different kind of project, I didn't need that extra time.

The reason I wanted to work on that film was because it was one of the few scripts that I read where I immediately got a lot of ideas. The film took place in the 1970's in rural Louisiana, so lots of sounds came into my head when I started thinking about the "sounds" of Louisiana- like the sounds of the bugs and the feel of the air. I've driven through there and been down there so many times that I began getting ideas based on physical memories of the area and the things I had remembered. It's was the kind of things that are hard to put into words: like these brain textures of how you feel when you're down there, specifically- I feel that there's this sweetness and a tension down there, but also this very "organic-world" feel of the world that is very different there than found in other parts of the country.

So when the guy said that he was set to start filming, I went into the studio immediately and started working on ideas. I remember reading the script and making music notes, and that was the first time I ever did that while reading a script.

I started my instrumentation early and I just started making music before I even saw any footage or anything. I knew I wanted to create several themes and then write variations of each theme and then create other parts to go along with certain scenes. The premise of the story was about these two teenage boys in 1970's rural Louisiana who their first love experience. There was a dark daddy figure, murder, it's based in the south, there's bullies, feelings of confusion, guilt about what's going on, scared of being caught, etc.

So unlike my other writing, where I've veered through notes or smeared around things, I immediately became much more careful and strict with the melodies so I could do variations of them. When I went into it, I started with recording about a thirty-second to two-minute piece, but I would leave extra room after that, giving myself about 10 minutes maximum running time for each song.

Since I only was working with one mic and a home recorder, I had to build up each song with multiple tracks on top of each other. So I first created these little melodies and variations, one track at a time and then I would leave the extra 5-8 minutes open at the end so I could just keep playing that on each layered track in a way that I wasn't thinking of the other tracks.

I also didn't go back and listen to any of it while I was doing this. So when I ended up with the first portion, which was a thought-out portion of the song, I had a piece that was completely thought out. Then that would end, and a few seconds later these other tracks would come up that I had no control of, which created these extra songs at the end that were these really chaotic pieces that fell where ever the pieces fell.

The funny part of all of this was that a lot of the pieces this guy picked for his film were the pieces at the end of each song. Those were the subconscious parts and not the thought out pieces, and those were the ones that matched what he was doing. The cool thing about that project was that he was listening to most of the music pieces that I gave him before he even began filming. He was listening to it all while he was filming, so what he was filming was going on while he had these songs in his head.

That's interesting to hear that there was a certain collaboration that was happening. It seems very circular.

RB: Yeah, exactly. It was cool because it he seemed really happy with the process too.

You made a "first attempt" at making a new record after you finished the soundtrack work, that included work with pedal steel guitarist Buddy Cage and Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth).  Can you discuss what you first began working on at this point?

RB: Well, the film score work really played an important part of making this record. I finished the score in Brooklyn and then moved upstate to Kingston, New York and finished it all up here. It was a really great place to record in because we were kind of out in the country and there were no neighbors to complain.  It had great high ceilings in a big room. The songs really opened up in a space with lots of open air. It gave the tracks a lot more openness and made them change a lot.

When I finished the soundtrack I had a lot of melody ideas left over that I really liked and I also had performances that I couldn't necessarily re-create. I was writing some short stories at this time and I had the unused soundtrack work. I originally wanted the next record to have these stories to go along with the songs I was working on. My plan was to have some songs sung as well as use the short stories to along with instrumentals. It was going to be this kind of grand thing with a book of short stories, songs, and instrumental music. 

Well, literally after I played the last single note on the Wurlitzer piano for the film score, I began having equipment problems. I have a lot of old equipment, and due to many circumstances, it was asking for trouble. So after the film score was totally done, I started thinking about the new project, but then I lost all of my extra film score material. I had mixes but I didn't have the original sources on my laptop, so I thought that I could still do something with it all.

So, then I got my machine fixed and moved into this house I'm in now, and started working on the new songs. I was re-working the songs and things were going in a certain direction when I finally got the situation together. I got Buddy Cage to come in, and he played on maybe ten songs. It was great. He came into the studio totally sight unseen and played all of his parts. Then I edited his parts down to what I thought was appropriate for the songs. Then, I worked on recording more based on what he had done and I called Steve Shelley, who I had met years before, and he came up and played on like 8-10 songs.

After Steve left I decided to back my data up and begin working on the mixes. As soon as he left, something happened with my machine and lights started flashing randomly, like when the chess piece displayed on the robot from "Lost In Space"! I didn't lose all of that material, but a few months when I got the machine back I had been thinking about the songs and the arrangements so much that I felt I needed to re-do a bunch of stuff.

I should also mention that the same month that I had Steve up and when my equipment broke down, my house was robbed and my laptop was stolen. It had all of my mixes, the recordings from my film score, and my short story writings. I no longer had any of the film score music to rely on, or the writings, or the stories to put in between the songs. It was all just gone. Taken.

Wow. With all of that material now lost, what did you do next?

RB: Well, the film score still had a huge impact on where I was going. I discovered that when I started to begin working on the new record again, I discovered that I was working from a new place, both recording-wise and creatively. I thought of it as instead of coming through the front door I was coming through the side door with the new record because I changed the way I approached making music.

The fact that I became so strict with the melodies and variations made me kind of record in a different way and think in a different way. I'm sure that you are like this as an artist, like when you want things to change in your life, you try to change the way you think about things to give yourself a new energy for the next project.  I wanted that to happen and it definitely did.

Now that you were back on track and working on the new record again, did your writing process keep changing?

RB: This record was the first time that I wrote songs as they were being recorded. In the past, as I'm touring or going about day-to-day stuff, I would be collecting song ideas and melody ideas on a hand-held something-or-other I had. Then I would sift them out, while mining for something, and what I would have left would be stuff to make into songs. Then I'd put songs together and go into a studio and record them. Usually I would go into the studio and having had some time to even play them on the road a little bit, work out the kinks, and put some nuances on them too.

This time, I went straight in with a few melody ideas and I was actually still writing until the day I mastered it. I was changing words around, changing melodies around, and erasing a lot of things that didn't necessarily need to be there. This was all something which I haven't really ever done before. And honestly, when I got done with the record, I had a tour right afterwards and I invited a friend of mine to go on the tour with me. He hadn't heard the music and I didn't even really know the songs. So we basically had about four days to rehearse songs that neither of us knew. It was kind of a strange experience. It was like I was playing a record and learning how to play the songs with him, which is something I don't necessarily want to do again, but it was an interesting experience.

So after that, I got through the mixing and the album just got to a point where I just couldn't understand what was going on. It was like I had been looking at this too much for too long. It just seemed kind of like when you buy a piece of furniture from a thrift store and it's been painted so many times that you can't really tell what the original pice of furniture was. So I gave it to a friend of mine to mix. And he did a great job. I had to be out of the process at that point, and when I got them back I found some flaws in my performances and words that I really wanted to fix. So that was the third version of this thing.

The third version? So there's still a fourth version? Was it getting closer to getting finished then?

RB: No. I had to change some things and that became the fourth version of the record. At this point, I didn't know what to do. But I found this guy up here in upstate New York, Malcolm Burn, who actually lives down the road from me. He worked on Giant Sand's Glum album that I loved so much. I always felt that record had such an amazing sonic quality. Glum really turned me on to want to use Giant Sand for my second record, Devotion & Doubt. It was kind of a strange circling back to that place. So I met with him and I brought him my tracks and completely handed it over to him and trusted his process to mix it.

I'm afraid to ask this Richard, but what came next ?

That's it. So now, at the end of the process, I have nine tracks, which is Our Blood. I am still kind of confused by it, but I honestly feel it was the best I could have done given my situation. I had been living with this work for so long that it was just getting ridiculous. I felt like I couldn't get past it. It was creating blocks in my life, my non-music writing, as well as with where I wanted to go with my music writing. I just couldn't get past it.

So, Our Blood really was a wheel stuck in a ditch. And I swear to God, the second after I got it mastered, things started coming back to me again and now I've been able to write again. But looking back on it, at the time it was this weird pebble in my shoe that I just had to get out. So when it was finished, I had to accept that this is what this record "is" and just move on with my life. It was such a strange experience in so many ways, creatively and of just finishing a project.

In general, when I finish a record, it takes me a few years to be able to listen to it and see what the final outcome of it really is and how I feel about it. I'm never completely satisfied. I can always think of certain moments and wish it had gone another way. I feel as though I can't judge it. I'm in no position to judge what I've done. All I can do is put it out and say "Here's what happened".

So now that the record is totally finished and getting released into the world, you're getting ready to embark on a tour and play some shows. Can you talk a little about what your tour plans are and what's coming up next?

RB: I have a tour coming up with David Kilgour. I have been painfully going back and listening to songs from my old records to relearn the songs, melodies, and keys. It's funny, now that I've been listening to these albums from three, four, and over seven years ago, I'm kind of realizing "Oh yeah. I am happy with how those came out". But it has taken years for me to let myself get to a point where I can let my guard down about those projects. 

So I've been learning songs for this new tour and it has really been an adventure. I'm still feeling out the new songs, but I don't want to go on tour and just play the new record. It's like when people go to a show, they want to hear certain songs, for maybe certain reasons. For me, I want to play the new material because it's what I am excited about, and it's something I am still exploring. But it's a hard line to draw sometimes. It's like, "Do I want to satisfy myself or do I want to make sure that the people in the audience hear what they want to hear".  It's something I've been battling with.

I've been putting the set together for this tour, and I've really been enjoying playing these songs while I'm still exploring them. It's been really exciting because I haven't played them that much. I'm putting them all together with the old songs, and I think I have created a set for this next tour that will satisfy me and the people who come out and want to hear older stuff too. I'm still able to include most of the new record and put old things in too, so the arrangements of the old songs reflect how I am thinking regarding the new record too.

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