Buck Meek On His New Album And What’s Next For Big Thief

Nobody can ever accuse Big Thief of laziness. Not only is the band prolific — since 2016 they have released five albums, including one double-LP, while maintaining a packed tour schedule — but the individual members are also constantly busy with their own projects. Case in point: When I caught up with guitarist-songwriter Buck Meek this week, it was several hours before the penultimate show of Big Thief’s summer tour with Lucinda Williams, which concluded the following day in Los Angeles. Later this month, he will begin another tour in support of his own upcoming solo album, Haunted Mountain, due August 25.

I was thankful that Meek found the time to talk with me. While I admired his two previous solo LPs, 2018’s Buck Meek and 2021’s Two Saviors, his latest record feels like a real breakthrough. A self-described collection of on-the-road love songs, Haunted Mountain adds layers of instrumental muscle to Big Thief’s lean and sparse folk-rock template, with Meek’s gnarled guitar supported by the supple, countrified warmth of his long-time backing band. The result is a record that rocks a bit harder than much of Big Thief’s output, while retaining the band’s hopeful, mystical spiritualism.

I spoke with the 36-year-old Texas native about Haunted Mountain as well as the future of Big Thief. (I also inquired about his work with Bob Dylan on the 2021 concert film Shadow Kingdom, though he dodged my questions in an eccentric, almost Dylanesque manner.) “Maybe now we’ll just go all in and make a death metal children’s record,” he said playfully at one point. Was he joking? Let’s find out.

This album is called Haunted Mountain. The last Big Thief album was called New Warm Mountain I Believe In You. I’m sensing a pattern here.

Well, I do love the volatility of the mountains. I live in the mountains, and I feel humbled by their volatility — by the mudslides, and the fires, and the floods, and just being constantly reminded of my insignificance. I love the three dimensionality of the earth rising around me. There’s a perspective that you’re constantly reminded of in the mountains, which I find grounding.

This is a Buck Meek record, but in the press materials you seem to be really pushing it as a band album.

I’ve worked with the same players for my three solo albums, and I feel like this is the session that we really started trusting each other. Our second record Two Saviors was an exercise in trust, and our producer, Andrew Sarlo, he facilitated putting us in a room for one week in New Orleans in an old house with just an old tape machine and dynamic mics. He had us play all the songs just once, once in the morning and once in the evening, almost like a set. And he forced us to capture that instinct and that essence of a first take, if anything, as a trust-building exercise.

With Haunted Mountain, that trust was a lot more embedded in our relationships. Also, we’ve just deepened our friendships after traveling a lot together.

You seem very mindful about how to keep a band together. In Big Thief, you all have talked about the importance of preserving the friendships in the band as much as the music. What goes into the delicate chemistry that makes a band work?

For me, the core of it is reciprocity and just humility. It’s like a marriage, and it’s way beneath the music. The music is actually just such a small part of what makes a band a strong band. It really comes down to trusting each other to be honest, and learning each other’s communication style, learning how to communicate healthfully with kindness and with openness, and learning how to listen to each other. Because when you put yourself in a room with anybody on earth for that amount of time, there will inevitably be resentments and friction that arises, no matter who it is. And being able to develop the communication skills to work through that together, and make compromises for each other’s ideas and each other’s fears, and to be able to bend with each other, that’s the challenge. But that’s the strength of the band.

Along with being in a band, there’s also songwriting collaborations. For this record, you co-wrote five songs with Jolie Holland. What is the process of writing with Jolie like versus writing with Adrianne Lenker in Big Thief?

Totally different. Adrianne writes super intuitively. My role with writing with Adrianne is more as an editor. She writes from this very abstract place. She’ll often start songs with mumbles and word sounds, and they’re very abstract. And then those form into words slowly, and she steps back and observes them and develops the narrative from there. But it’s very stream of consciousness. Her and I have this songwriting mode where I’ll come in as an editor in that process. Once she already has something roughed out, I’ll come in and make it more efficient, or cut the fluff a little bit and help her shape what’s already there.

With Jolie, it was more conceptual. Often Jolie would send me a line or two with a concept. With “Paradise,” she sent me those first lines: “Tell me baby, what was that you said? What was that you said? You said something about paradise. And it shot right through me.” She sent me that line with this idea that she had overheard her partner say something from a distance and didn’t fully hear him, and filled in the blanks. And I finished the song with that concept.

You and Jolie are both from Texas. Is there a particular quality or perspective that songwriters from Texas share?

Well, at least my favorite songwriters from Texas, they share a relationship with myth. There’s definitely the tendency in Texans and in Texan storytellers and songwriters to exaggerate, and there’s really a balance between myth and then something very simple and grounded. And there’s a resiliency in Texans. Again, to bring it back to humility, Texas is a very harsh place in so many ways, and I think that the people there are softened by that harshness.

Which songwriters do you have in mind when you say that?

The Flatlanders, Terry Allen, Butch Hancock, Townes Van Zandt, Blaze Foley, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell. People like that.

The last song on the album, “The Rainbow,” features unreleased lyrics by the late Judee Sill. Did you have any trepidation about using her words?

I struggled with it feeling sacrilegious for sure. Basically, I had her journals, and the last journal entry was this unfinished song. It actually was untitled, and it was written for her ex-boyfriend and her ex-boyfriend’s daughter, and it was dated just a couple of weeks before she passed away. It was totally unfinished and there was a lot of repetition. She had written out all the rhyme schemes, and there was a lot of words crossed out, and it was completely out of order. There was no song form, but there was enough material there for a song.

I took her words and rearranged them, and tried to find a form that would fit into a melody. But I didn’t add any words other than conjunctions and tying it together. In approaching the melody and the harmony, I listened to a lot of her music, and I tried to write a melody and a harmony that I could imagine she would’ve written. I tried to be a vessel for her. I’ve been listening to Judee for a long time, and I’ve always had this feeling that she has this relationship with complex harmony and complex emotions. She has control of how to illuminate complex emotions in lyrics with subtle harmony and with tension and with sevenths and nines and thirteens and elevens and more complex chord structures.

For instance, versus the idea of a major chord being happy and a minor chord being sad, I’ve felt like Judee Sill has this understanding of a major seven chord feeling bittersweet, or a major seven sharp 11 feeling bittersweet with an edge dissonance, or a flat nine chord feeling just purely dissonant. So I tried to use that theory in my own writing of her melody. But what was crazy is after I finished the song, the filmmakers [of 2022’s Lost Angel: The Genius Of Judee Sill] came to L.A. and they had me record the song on camera for the documentary. And they brought more of her journals, and I was flipping through them, and there was a whole page that she had written mapping out this very thing, with every interval attached to a specific human emotion. That was pretty wild.

So in a way, you guessed what direction she might’ve taken with the song.

Yeah, I was guessing what direction she was taking, and it was to some degree confirmed by that journal entry. Of course, she does it so much more elegantly than I would, but I did my best.

I want to circle back to what you were saying about how a band works. Big Thief has a very passionate following. Which is good, obviously, but it also puts the band under a lot of scrutiny. In the past year, you have been taken to task for everything from booking two shows in Tel Aviv, and then canceling those shows, to the recent studio version of “Vampire Empire.” How do you navigate that?

[Long pause.] Everyone in the band has their own relationship with that, but the overarching method is to just lean into each other. We navigate it by just staying together, by staying as close as we can. We can all constantly check in on each other and just ignore everything outside of the band. Except for the things that we really know in our heart of hearts as a band that we want to let in. For instance, we’re on the road with Lucinda right now, and Lucinda Williams means a lot to us, and if she has something to say to us, we’re going to listen. But other than those very carefully selected influences, and collaborators, and our closest friends, we remind each other constantly to just ignore everything, but also to not become so selfish and nepotistic that we only listen ourselves. I think the key is that there’s four people, and the four of us alone have so many different polarizing opinions, that’s enough right there. And if we just continue to listen to each other, we trust that process.

Do you think about your own albums in relation to Big Thief? Like, do you make sure not to repeat what the band does?

To some degree, yes. With Big Thief, I am part of something much bigger than myself. And everyone in Big Thief has to shape-shift and has to humble themselves, and approach the creative process with adaptation every day. We all have to be very present, especially with Big Thief because this is a band where we change our setlist every single day. We follow Adrianne wherever she wants to go. If she wants to play a song in a different key or with a completely different groove, or if she wants to change the form or the structure of the lyrics at the last second, or if she brings a new song to the table that we have to learn on stage. Everyone in the band contributes to that flexibility, and there’s a strength in that. But at the same time, there’s a lot of compromise, too.

To some degree, having my own project, it’s a realm for me to be able to fully explore my own ideas without having the compromise. I’m still figuring out how my solo project works as far as the meaning of the band. It’s somewhere in the middle — it’s not a solo project with hired guns where I’m just the dictator, but it’s also not the same absolute democracy that Big Thief is.

I have to tell you that I think Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is a masterpiece. When it came out I thought, this is an instant classic record. Do you look at that album as a landmark in the band’s history? And if so, how does that influence what the band does next?

I see it as a landmark only in that it feels like the first album that we made really with no fear about putting ourselves in any box. With every album, we’re slowly melting away fear of what other people think, which is deep, subtle pressure. With Dragon, we really let ourselves go into any corner that we wanted to explore. And maybe in doing that, we made space, and we got that out of our system. Maybe now we’ll just go all in and make a death metal children’s record, something much more specific and efficient. Who knows?

It was reported that you recorded 45 songs for Dragon. That means 25 songs from those sessions are still unreleased. Do you expect to put those out at some point?

It’s possible. It’s also possible that they’ll never be heard.

Do you know what Big Thief is doing next?

Oh, we’re making a lot of plans. I will say that we want to make a death metal album, like a screamo album, and maybe a children’s album. We’re picking up a couple ideas right now.

I think you’re joking but I’m not 100 percent sure. Are you going to make an actual screamo record, or just a louder record?

Maybe. The thing about making records is, we really don’t know until we’re there. I will say we have lots of ideas and we’re always working on new songs, especially on the road. We just got a setup in our green room on the road, so we’ve been skipping all our soundchecks and rehearsing in the green room every day, working on new material, some of which we’re trying on stage. So we’re always picking up new stuff, and we did just build our own little studio so we can record ourselves as well. So we have quicker access to capturing the new material. But the truth is, even we don’t know what’s going to happen. We have all kinds of plans, we have all kinds of ideas, but we don’t know what’s going to happen until we’re actually in the room recording.

I want to go back to the “Vampire Empire” single. There was some discussion online about how the studio version compares with the live version, and disagreement over whether the studio version does justice to the live version. And the band posted on Instagram about how if you don’t like the studio version you can still listen to the live version if you want. It reminded me of an approach that I see from artists like Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead that treat songs as constantly evolving life forms. I’m not sure if most indie-rock fans think of music in that way. It’s more about replicating the record on stage and vice versa.

I think that most people probably misinterpreted that message as angry or frustrated or defensive even. I was there when it was written, and it was written by Adrianne, one of my best friends. The truth is, that was coming from a very loving place, almost like a motherly place. Her intention for writing that message was recognizing that maybe there’s a lot of really young kids who found that song on TikTok. And I think she was trying to help these kids understand what it means to record music as a band, and where these things actually come from.

It was maybe a little bit of tough love, but definitely coming from a loving place of just trying to help people understand it and be more open, instead of casting such immediate judgment. Because the truth is, I don’t think that phased us whatsoever. We knew that would happen. If anything, it made us sad that there’s this mechanism for division with social media, and this mechanism for hate, as you can see with pretty much any topic, that is seeping its way into music as well. That was sad. And Adrianne was just trying to counteract that with a little bit of clarity.

As the band gets bigger, does it become more difficult to maintain a connection with the audience?

[Long pause.] I think as long as we stay connected to each other, and stay connected to our childlike relationship with the music and with our curiosity, then we inherently stay connected with the people. It changes every night. There’s been nights when we played for 20 people where we felt disconnected from the audience because we were in our heads. And then there’s been nights where we played for 10,000 people and we felt like we had an intimate conversation with every one of them.

We’re committed to being present with each other, and we accept the reaction to that. If we’re really present with each other as a band, we are going to change every night, because we’re always changing. Every day we wake up, we have new feelings, we have new fears, new excitements, new stimulus. And our relationships are changing every day. And if we’re really present with each other, the music is going to change in tandem with that. We’re all very committed to not falling prey to creating a machine for consistency, which would be much easier and what most people think they want. But it’s also been proven to us, I don’t think that’s what people really want. I think the people that are coming to our shows, what they really are connecting with more than anything is the fact that we are being real with them. Even though it’s really messy sometimes, and it’s not consistent, and there’s nights that totally bomb. But what does that even mean? Maybe it bombs because it wasn’t tight, but for us, that’s a success that we were being real with each other, enough for it to “bomb.” I’d rather be real than be like a fucking robot.

I’m a huge Dylan fan, so I have to ask: What was it like to work on Shadow Kingdom?

Well, I’d love to talk about it, but I swore to a very intimidating cowboy that I wouldn’t speak a word of the matter. My apology.

So you really can’t talk about what it was like to work with Bob?

Can’t say a word, but you can stream it now, which is cool. Because originally, it was just a one-time, ticketed thing.

I’m a little disappointed, but I understand.

I really wish I could talk, but I actually swore to a very scary cowboy that I wouldn’t.

Is this a literal cowboy ? Or is this a euphemism for a legal document of some kind?

A literal cowboy with boots, and a belt buckle, and a big-ass knife.

So this is a Mulholland Drive scenario?

I’m not saying anything else.